From the moment I set foot on the grounds at the Priedaine Latvian Society in Freehold, NJ; I realized we were in a very special place. I strolled down the tiered lawn of the amphitheater toward the open stage to meet with my expert team of festival operations specialists. We were all in sync regarding the layout of the stages…where to put the vendors, activities, camping, festival merch, and medical tent. The grounds beyond the stage had well spaced shade trees above a soft mossy ground (great for camping and playing) and a jungle gym with swings and slides for the kids made a joyful centerpiece for the property. All the plans had been set, the fliers and posters distributed, but would people come to the Jersey shore for a Jam Band Music Festival?
Thursday, the day before, was like a dream. All the departments were buzzing around the site setting up their gear. Lights and sound and decorations were being hung around the stage, vendors were setting up their tents and displaying their wares, and volunteers were making signs and setting up the front gate booth, and preparing the camping grounds. One of the property owners pulled me aside and told me that this was the most organized event set-up he had ever seen at a place that often hosts parties of 600 people. I was elated.
Waking up on the festival grounds Friday morning felt magical. The sun was shining, but the shade from the trees kept the air nice and cool, and the fresh breeze tasted crisp and clean. People were already arriving, so I went to see who I knew.
I’m not sure I can describe how good it felt to hear person after person ask me, “Do you remember me? We met at …..and you told me to come here; and here I am!” People I met at Phish lot in July came, some folks I met came up from Camp Barefoot in WV; five hours from PA near Bear’s Picnic, friends from Catskill Chill, and Wormtown came. Oh yeah, and so many Turtle Soup fans!
When the first band, Eastbourne, took the stage at 1pm there was already a small crowd gathered waiting for the music to start! Every band had an audience at Souper Groove. It was incredible! The music was stellar all day. Doug Mikula shredded. Montoj and Paul Thiessen Band from PA jammed out. Listen Close from NY killed it. By the time I went to introduce my boys Karmic Juggernaut at 5:30pm, there were hundreds of people raging the stage; and I was reminded of our theme night “Wild Animal Kingdom” as I surveyed costumed characters. There were tigers and leopards, turtles and peacocks; I saw an elephant, and I was dressed as a monkey. It was quite the scene.
As it began to get dark, a friendly rain began to fall. No one seemed phased by the waterworks. Turtle Soup took the stage at 8pm to what appeared to be a full house. Soup classics “Baby Don’t,” “Crumble,” “Liquid, I Said,” and “Automatic Trance Mission” electrified the crowd as the rain fell harder and harder. One highlight for me was when the band covered “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root; featuring guest flautist John Alfonzo. By the end of the set, the rain began to subside, and there was still more music to come.
Four Fingers of Funk and Newton Crosby closed out the main stage, and then the Brummy Brothers held it down until the wee hours in the acoustic tent to a crowd of insatiable music fans. Costumed clowns played around the grounds until the sun came up and it was time to do it again.
The sun came up on Saturday morning and stayed with us all day. It was glorious sunshine that sparked the good morning energy. Still cool in the shade, but warm in the sun had me overwhelmingly optimistic about the day’s events. The theme of the day was “Under the Big Top,” so I appropriately donned my top hat and tails and megaphone and became the Ringmaster.
Saturday morning when I took the stage to introduce the first band, Des and the Swagmatics, I was once again thrilled to see a small crowd eager for music at 11:30 am. Later that day, people told me they were drawn from their cars and tents to the stage by the sultry strains of Desiree’s vocals, and the crowd continued to grow throughout the day.
Some of the bands that really stood out for me on Saturday were Dub Proof with their groovy reggae vibe, Mike Montrey Band’s joyful songs, and Native Maze from PA (those boys really bring it!). By the time Turtle Soup took the stage, the crowd was even bigger than Friday.
Turtle Soup went right into songs from their newly released CD, Seconds. They opened with upbeat anthem “For Once,” and then tore right into funk-based, “Icarus.” When the band left the stage before the encore, I addressed the crowd through joyfully teary eyes. The feeling of love and support from the audience was so intense. I reminded everyone to clean their campsites and look out for each other and that there was still plenty of music to come after the encore. Fans shouted “Souper Groove Rocks!” until Turtle Soup took the stage to encore with a high energy “Let It Burn.”
Mun from NY took the stage next and kept the people dancing, and then lead guitarist Jeff “Mudd” Mahajan from Turtle Soup got up to introduce the Juggling Suns. Mudd told us that guitar player Mark Diomede from Juggling, “was one of my greatest influences. The first time I saw Mark play I thought ‘this is how it is done.’” I have to agree. Mark and his Juggling Suns have melted my face and made my jaw drop every time I have seen them, and hundreds of times over the past twenty years. Saturday night was no exception. Juggling Suns closed the main stage with high energy jams to applauding fans.
After Juggling, we gathered all the musicians from as many bands as we could find, and a Souper Jam began. More than twenty musicians took the stage and jammed to a grateful crowd until 2am. It was amazing. Activities were still being held as well. A glow-in-the-dark dodge ball game had been coordinated by our costumed clown committee. Late, late night I ran around with the clowns making photo opportunities and making sure there were still smiles on faces.
Souper Groove Music Festival hosted 30 bands from NJ, NY, PA, and CT. More than 500 people were in attendance. All the bands had great audiences. For a first-time event all the bands, promoters, vendors, and fans each had our own expectations exceeded by what turned out to be a well-organized, and well attended event. Will there be a Souper Groove Music Festival next year? Yes, there will.