Photo by Erykah Dick
Article by Charlie Walker
It’s only fitting that the annual staging of the Gathering of the Vibes once again landed safely in Bridgeport, CT, which just happens to be the final home and final resting place of P.T. Barnum – well-known as America’s consummate huckster and founder of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
After all, Barnum would be proud of the spectacle that unfolded at Seaside Park in Bridgeport from July 23 through July 26: Scores of musicians, thousands of dancers, jugglers, freaks, hippies, painted people, tattooed ladies (and men, too), peddlers and shopkeepers boasting exotic goods, food flavors from around the world … an endless smorgasbord for the senses.
These days, Ken Hays is the talented showman for a new generation of people who appreciate and love a spectacle. Hays puts together a dynamite bill every year, and complements the music with talented artisans, non-profit-do-gooders and a “something for everyone” approach to entertainment.
The musical highlights this year were many and well distributed across the festival’s four-day calendar.
In a nutshell:
- Donna Jean Band, sounding better every time I hear them
- DSO, bedeviled by weather-spawned sound woes, but slugging through nonetheless
- Late-night joy, courtesy of The Machine
- The chunky-funk of JJ Grey & Mofro
- Keller Williams performing his usual quirky magic
- George Clinton & P-Funk – I swear, these guys get stranger every time I see them, and that’s saying something
- Deep. Banana. Blackout.
- moe. “light” – the set disappointingly short-circuited by a fast-moving and potentially dangerous storm
- The best unknown group of well-known musicians working the scene today, Moonalice
- Assembly of Dust, stronger than ever
- Saturday’s one-two-three punch of Guster, Levon Helm and Ratdog;
- Sunday’s one-two-three punch of Grace Potter, Buddy Guy and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
But let’s pause for a moment here, before going any further: Just what is it with the weather when it comes to the Vibes?
It doesn’t matter when it’s scheduled – the weather gods adjust their calendars accordingly, to ensure healthy doses of rain, lightning and wind. True, most of this year’s downpours occurred after dark, but plenty of campers still were left soggy and ankle-deep in muck. High fashion at this year’s Vibes – and the voice of practicality – was the mid-calf size rubber boots sported by attendees who seem to have learned from past mistakes and packed with the weather in mind.
Fortunately, this year’s weather didn’t quite match the near-hurricane of 2008. But at least that was over and done with during the course of an afternoon.
Weather notwithstanding, Ken Hays and his crew deserve big kudos for the near-impossible job of pulling off this event and doing it as smoothly as possible.
(A quick aside: Some ugly stories were circulating about the death of a 29-year-old New York concertgoer Sunday morning. The sad event prompted a comment from Hays, who intimated the Vibes might again leave Bridgeport behind. “We didn’t sell out,” he told local media. “We did in 2007 and didn’t in 2008. This year was worse. I think it’s a combination of the economy and the unemployment rate. It’s an exceptionally expensive venue and that’s the reason most festivals don’t happen in cities, but in rural areas.”)
Counterpoint, illustrating the well-organized nature of Vibes medical teams: When a young lady faded and fainted Sunday morning along the main food concourse, a Vibes rep assigned to keep an eye on the area was on the scene and radioed for help less than a minute after the young lady hit the deck. Fortunately, she appeared to be on her way to recovering by the time the medics arrived.
But the 2009 Gathering truly offered positive vibes for everyone, with activities and music geared to appeal to a broad range of ages and taste.
Of course, there was upwards of 45 musical acts – many that easily fell into the “jam band” category.
The overriding impression the Vibes makes, though – one that I can’t emphasize enough to outsiders – is that in addition to its reputation as an excellent place to partake of jam band offerings, it’s also an outstanding family event.
Feel free to bring the kids – because many, many people do so. Crowd size was estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, and it appeared to be a mostly mellow gathering. Of course, a heavy Bridgeport Police presence likely plays at least a minor role in that.
Many factors influence and reinforce the mellow mood. A Family Camping area is set aside. There’s a camping area for the (message) “Boardies” who stay in touch all year and meet up at the Gathering for activities including a pot luck picnic. There’s a specific Handicapped Camping area.
Then consider the Kids’ Tent and the Teens’ Tent. A lot of planning, logistics and people power went into making these two venues a success. Teens had the opportunity to gather with peers, away from temptations and parents. They could jam and sit in with the accomplished bands scheduled to play there through the weekend.
At the Kids’ Tent, there was a large selection of toys, arts-and-crafts projects, and activities such as face painting and balloon sculpture. My two-year-old kept asking to go, from the moment she awoke each day. (Great rule: Parents must remain with child, so it’s not a free babysitting service.)
On Sunday morning, families and kids met at Solar Stage tent for a kids’ concert, followed by the annual kids’ parade. The parade culminated at the main stage on concert field, where there was World Peace Rally, Prayer and countdown of every country in the world, complete with flags.
The ages in attendance range from babes in arms (and at breasts), toddlers, adolescents … all the way to “old heads,” some of whom appeared to be reliving past lives. Some folks there looked like they’d never evolved past 1969, and possibly were even wearing the same clothes.
The teen to 20-something set ruled the roost. What was the lasting impression? Tattoos, tattoos, and more tattoos. If someone had a tattoo concession at the Vibes, it might’ve given the beer vendors a run for the money.
In some ways, looking at these kids born later than 1987 could make you long for the good old days, before Crackberrries, iPhones and other technological marvels crippled the ability of humans to communicate directly with each other, face to face.
Jeez, most of these kids weren’t even old enough to really remember Jerry Garcia, or what they were doing the day he died and when they found out. In so many ways, it’s difficult to believe it’s already been 14 years … but even the average 25-year-old probably hadn’t hit puberty when the Leader of the Band was called home.
The Vibes also places a big emphasis on green/solar energy, recycling and Clean Vibes anti-litter efforts. Reputable non-profits have space to offer their messages and solicit followers. You could easily shop for a year’s worth of presents for your family, and never eat the same meal twice while enjoying a tasty selection of enticing cuisines.
You couldn’t overlook the influence the elements had on the venue. Despite copious deposits of hay and sporadic periods of drying sun, the concert field never quite kicked the stench of an unmucked horse stall.
Back to the music.
In case you missed it, on Friday:
Strangefolk. There’s something about these guys I just like. Can’t quite put my finger on it.
The colorful and creative musical musings and tumbling rhythms of the always entertaining Keller Williams (with MDS). Highlight: Eyes of the World.
George Clinton & P-Funk. What on earth is going on in this man’s head? I’ve seen him perform several times, and it’s definitely stranger every time around. Rambling funk jams, incomplete songs (no Atomic Dog!), political diatribes … Still, P.T. Barnum would be pleased with the spectacle Clinton brings to town. He comes equipped with his own stage announcer and Clinton is his own Master of Ceremonies. Upwards of 30 characters crowd the stage during the course of the performance – acrobats, dancers, a roller skater, and the usual collection of characters. Some of these folks are victims of their own success. If the Diaper Man knew he’d still be on stage in the same costume decades later, he might have made a different wardrobe choice. Who knows? Maybe these days he’s switched from Pampers to Depends.
The ever-popular and perpetually powerful Deep Banana Blackout came on after the Clinton set petered out in a somewhat confusing fashion. But Jen Durkin and her funksters quickly fired up the crowd, invoking the spirit of the late James Brown (“He’s here with us tonight.”). DBB also dedicated a touching version of “Like a Road” to the late Merl Saunders, keyboardist extraordinaire and friend of Jerry Garcia.
The short-circuited performance by moe. ended early due to an unwelcome, violent visit from Mother Nature, in the form of a brilliant thunderstorm.
Many moe. fans rebounded from the disappointment, however, as the weather finally eased, and made their way to see a crispy Lettuce show on the (enclosed) Green Vibes stage.
Saturday morning broke clear and a bit breezy.
Moonalice (absent Jack Casady) opened the day with an upbeat working of “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Moonalice’s performance of “Stella Blue” and “Sugaree” captured the ears and hearts of more than a couple of old Deadheads in attendance.
The bouncy, crowd-pleasing Ryan Montbleau easily won over the crowd. Highlight: “Unbroken Chain.”
State Radio canceled, so their time slot was broken up over the course of Saturday afternoon.
Festival veterans Assembly of Dust are promoting a new release, “Some Assembly Required.” They’re offering one track a week for free download; guests on the disc include Bela Fleck and Grace Potter. The They capped their Saturday afternoon set with a rendition of the Who’s “Listening to You.”
Max Creek brought Donna Jean back to the stage for uplifting performances of “Cassidy” and “Bertha.”
The pop trio Guster, perhaps an unusual selection among jam bands, delivered a spirited set. Guster’s promoting the “Lost & Gone Forever 10-Year Anniversary Tour,” which kicks off at the end of October. It was a busy weekend for these guys: They closed out the XPoNential Music Festival (WXPN-FM, 88.5, Philadelphia) Sunday night in Camden, NJ.
Next up was the Levon Helm Band, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I expected the set to rely heavily on his two recent commercial releases, which are receiving praise from many critics. The band, featuring guitar near-legend Larry Campbell, ran through a tight set that included, “Shape I’m In,” “Long Black Veil,” “Deep Elem Blues,” “Attics of My Life,” “Makes No Difference,” and “Chest Fever.” Encore: “The Weight.” Whew! That’s some hot tunes.
Headlining Saturday night was Ratdog. Must admit, it wasn’t one of my favorite sets. Bob Weir’s crew can be so dead on (check recent shows at Penns Peak, for instance), and then clunkers like this performance one pop up. The set list and the performance were uninspired: “Jam> Festival> Jack Straw, Lazy River Road, Bird Song> Bertha, Silvio> Tequila> Scarlet Begonias, Ashes and Glass> Iko Iko> stuff> Days Between> Bird Song, One More Saturday Night* /E: Ripple (with Donna Jean). ‘Nuff said.
The Gathering’s final day had a distinctly bluesy sound, at least until the final headliner.
The Harlem Gospel Choir (“Oh Happy Day”) followed the World Peace Prayer.
Later in the afternoon, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals tore it up. If you haven’t heard of them or heard them, you’re strongly encouraged to do so. This band is hot, hot, hot.
The penultimate performer was blues warrior and legend Buddy Guy, who still turns out some of the best blues licks this side of Robert Johnson’s final resting place. Classics like “Hoochie Coochie Man” send shivers through the crowd. And Guy promises: “If you call me, I’ll bring it to you – and I’m lovin’ every damn minute of it.” One question: Who IS that kid who shares the stage with him? Then Buddy Guy introduced Quinn Sullivan, his 10-year-old prodigy, who kicked ass on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.”
Last up (and last added to the bill) was soft-rock veterans (some might say dinosaurs) Crosby, Stills & Nash. Maybe they’ve lost half-a step and a note here and there, but these guys still give it all and hit the trademark harmonies. Stephen Stills opened the set with “Love the One You’re With,” and the show went on to feature classic hits like “Long Time Gone,” “Marrakesh Express,” “Helplessly Hoping,” and other sweet tunes.
A few more words about logistics, in closing:
It used to be that Thursday was the “arrive early and pay $20 extra” day, for people to get a jump on weekend arrivals. It seems that Thursday – the earlier the better – has become the prime time for checking in.
At the same time, the Borg-like Vibes crew has learned from each year and adapted, especially when it comes to routing campers into the venue. This year was the best and most efficient yet. Lines kept moving, people were treated fairly, and there were enough staffers/volunteers to keep it all running smoothly. That included directing campers out of Seaside Park, as well. Kudos, kudos, kudos.
An interesting note for Wharf Rats: Barnum’s fortunes took a beating in the 1850s, but he fought his way back by setting out on a lecture tour – as a temperance speaker. By 1860, he was back up on his feet and running. We are everywhere!