Saturday, July 23, 2011

Gathering of the Vibes 2011

Festival season continues!  Dave's college friends Johnny and Ricky took the bus into town Thursday night and on Friday we packed up for the journey to Gathering of the Vibes, which has seemingly found a home in Seaside Park, Bridgeport CT.  New England has been in the throes of a Biblical heat wave and record temperatures were forecast, so we packed up several gallons of water (we froze some of the bottles), a large jug of iced tea, some fruit juice, ice, and a few sandwiches.  Made sure we had the tickets and hit the road South at a few minutes after 10:00AM, listening to loud Grateful Dead all the way down.

The car thermometer read 100 by the time we passed into Connecticut and was at 103 degrees when we stopped at a rest area on route 91 and remained there when we pulled off of route 8 into the Housatonic Community College parking garage reserved for day-trippers.  We grabbed chairs and blanket and stuffed our packs with water and descended to an air-conditioned shuttle bus for the 2-mile trip to the festival.  Halfway there we were already stuck in the traffic trying to get to Seaside Park and I realized I'd left my wallet in the car! I disembarked and walked the mile back ... really not that bad if I kept a slow pace and stuck to the shade.  Grabbed my wallet and had another cup of iced tea and bottle of water in the shady parking garage and then took a non-air-conditioned shuttle to the festival.  We were all pools of sweat by the time we got there but realized that was only the beginning!

Confusion and bad/missing signage marked the festival entrance, but I waited through the wrong line, waited through the right line, and then waited through (what was not now) the wrong line again, and finally made it in.  After wandering for a bit I got my bearings and located the main stage, but detoured to the water's edge and waded a bit.  I hadn't touched Long Island Sound for maybe 42 years ... a scary thought.  The tide was high and several boats were out on the water as well as a number of people bobbing in the waves.  As I remembered, the high tide on that coast brings a lot of green seaweed and the water was basically filthy with algae and silt but whatever.

Entered the main stage area and Sarah and the boys had set up in a fine spot a little to the right of the soundboard.  I chlled as much as possible in the mid-day sun (we learned later that Bridgeport had officially tied their heat record of 103 degrees that day), listened to some of honorary MC Wavy Gravy's amusing rambles, had one of the Saranac Liquid Vibes (they brewed a lager especially for the festival, and it was a nice, dry pilsner), swigged down some more water, and then moseyed up to the stage for the Taj Mahal Trio at 2:30.

We'd seen Taj with Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums at the Lowell Summer Music Series a couple of years ago and their sound wasn't quite as good as that marvelous concert, playing an early set on such a hot day.  But they were just what the doctor ordered nevertheless.  The crowd pushing in around the stage got pretty big and you could tell that most of the people there were really Taj aficionados ... everyone knew the songs and shouted out requests.  An early standout was a new blues of his called Annie Mae, the song of the set was his delightful reggae take on Blackjack Davey, he covered his most recent masterpiece, Zanzibar, he did a funky, re-imagined Corinna Corinna, and he closed with The Blues Is All Right, in which of course he asked for audience participation.

And boy did that sweaty, writhing, mid-afternoon crowd participate.  I was close enough to the stage to be in the shade and there was some sea breeze, but the temperature was peaking.  Even under these conditions the crowd roared out their lines (I was roaring too of course) and the big screens flashed, the cameras swooped (the whole thing was being filmed), the colorfully-dressed people danced and played, clouds of pot and tobacco smoke rose from the audience, the seabirds flew overhead ... it was glorious.  I returned to our seats (two lawn chairs and a spread-out blanket with a pile of towels and packs in the middle) and gushed some, then cruised around to look at the vendors and get another beer.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band was up next at 4:30 and I was thinking I could take this set off and maybe get in a swim or check out the other stages.  But then they came on and all thoughts of doing anything but gawking at how excellent they were blew away over the Sound.  They had 11 pieces: Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks on guitar, bass, keyboards, two drummers, 3 horn players, and 2 back-up vocalists (one of whom sung a lead ... to call any of these guys "back-up" is fainter praise than they deserve) and their sound mix was extraordinarily clear.  I'd heard Susan Tedeschi before (she started her career as a Boston singer-songwriter), but had never seen her live and was just knocked over by her range, her talent, and her powerful voice.  Here was this Massachusetts girl up there in a spotted sun-dress and high heels singing like a blues goddess and getting the guitar techs to dote on her whims and *playing* guitar that was arguably better than her celebrated partner's steaming leads.

Trucks, the horn players, and the drummers were awesome, but watching Tedeschi go was more fun that you can imagine.  Bonnie Raitt?  She did a cover of Give It Up Or Let Me Go that Raitt would have loved.  Eric Clapton?? The highlight of the set as far as I was concerned was their cover of Clapton's Anyday on which Tedeschi (and Trucks) did some guitar solos that left burn marks.  Al Green/ Diana Ross/ Sly Stone???  They closed with Got To Take You Higher and this was another scary episode in crowd participation.  Sometime during that set I realized I had to leave my seat and join the crowd moshing in front of the stage.  Don't know how that happened ... momentary insanity.  But I was back cruising the vendors and looking for the beer tent during the last song and people all around me were singing the chorus and rocking out.

The boys returned between sets ... they had seen both Taj and Tedeschi Trucks and even though these were mostly new bands to them, they were suitably impressed.  We realized that even though we'd brought as much water as we could carry (without a rolling cooler or something), that we were close to finishing it.  Dave and I grabbed 4 of the big bottles and went in search of water.  Luckily, some people in southern Connecticut speak English and we got directed to the water station, with a *long* line.  We filled up the bottles and brought them back, drank them, and then the boys did another water run while I slipped up front for Levon Helm.

Levon brought the crowd with him.  His voice apparently wasn't in shape that day and he led on the opening Ophelia and the closing The Weight, but in between he let his stellar supporting cast do the vocal chores.  His recent collaborator/producer Larry Campbell filled in for him excellently on the songs he would have normally sung, and played guitar and mandolin.  Campbell centered an up-front choral trio with Teresa Williams and Amy Helm (the next generation of Helms was up there too ... Amy was very pregnant), Brian Mitchell did a great job on keyboards and accordion, they also had Byron Isaacs (from Ollabelle) on bass, a guitar player, five horn players (including the venerable Howard Johnson on tuba), and Levon himself on drums.  That makes 12 (one more than Tedeschi Trucks) ... and then the special guests started coming out!

The core group was up there for a few numbers and then they started swapping seats and instruments.  Cindy Cashdollar came out to play lap steel (she's currently playing with Johnny Nicholas and Hell Bent, who had been on another stage earlier), then Joe Russo (the drummer from Furthur) came out and accompanied Levon excellently with another drum kit ... great sound from those two, and then that guy what's his name ... oh yeah, Bob Weir came out...

The ensemble fumbled through a Deep Elem Blues that managed to take off and showcase everybody.  But then there was one of the most magical moments of the day/night: everybody cleared off except for Williams, Campbell, Weir, and Amy and they played/sung an Attics of My Life that came as close as you can to silencing a festival crowd that big and rowdy.  This was beyond being in church, it was like being at something like a gathering of good vibes.

They threw the mandolin around some after that and got Levon to pick a few ... he was grinning like he was doing exactly like what he wanted to do with exactly the people he wanted to do it with, including his daughter and future grandchild.  They finally did one of my favorite recent songs, the gospel-tinged When I Go Away ... it's a song about getting dead and what might happen after that to put it simply.  Larry Campbell did his best Levon imitation here and Amy and Teresa sang their vocal chords out.  This is what it's all about IMO.  Having Levon and Joe hammering those skins did not detract from the sound at all to say the least.  As mentioned, they closed with The Weight and that was the sing-along we all wanted, tens of thousands of people going nuts singing along to "Take a load off Annie...."  The sun was just starting to go down and there was a promise that the temperature would abate.

Phew!  I'd been up there as close to the stage as I could get and the boys, as it turned out, were close behind me in their own dancing spaces.  I wasn't the only old guy at the festival, there were many, many of us.  I was talking to a guy who asked me if I'd ever seen Garcia playing pedal steel and I told him that yes, I'd seen him on pedal steel with the New Riders in 1973 (which isn't exactly correct) ... and then wondered if I should feel insulted that I'd been so pigeonholed as a relic.  He admitted that he'd first seen the Dead in 1977 and I realized that we were just two old guys reminiscing, that there was no stereotyping involved.

I want to say something about the behavior of the crowd though.  From as early as the Tedeschi Trucks set and especially after the closing act, the crowd left the field in a trashed state that I couldn't believe.  I thought that people at a festival like this would have been a little more environmentally conscious than elsewhere, but that optimism was dashed.  There was no hardship (weather, lack of options) making it tough for people to bring out what they brought in, but people left piles of trash all over the field like they were entitled to.  I admit that there are situations where you need other people to gather your garbage, but people need to have some long-term consciousness and realize that if they do that in the short-term it brings up ticket prices in the long term.  Oh geez, maybe this is getting too complicated for simple people to understand.

A guy in front of me in the Tedeschi Trucks set had a beer and was smoking a cigarette (there was a shocking amount of tobacco smoking at this festival). He put the smoke out in the beer and a few minutes later *dropped* the beer can and took off.  The can rolled onto my feet (these were close quarters, you understand) and Bud Lite leaked out all over my left foot ... which actually felt good since it was a few degrees cooler than the air but was pretty gross.  In another situation in the Levon set a girl in front of me finished her water bottle so threw it behind her.  *I* was behind her and it landed on my feet so I kicked it back to hers.  She kicked it again.

These people should be the first pushed off the plank when the pirates take over.

OK, Ok, ok ... time to talk strategy for Furthur.  The guys referred to them as "the Dead" and as much as I felt this was inaccurate I was totally bought into the idea that seeing them up close was important.  The last time I saw Bobby or Phil was with the Grateful Dead in Tully Forum, Billerica MA on May 11, 1979; critiquing that show/experience would be a digression but let me emphasize that it was the last time I saw them.  I've listened to the Dead countless times since then but hadn't seen them or any of the spinoffs spawned after Garcia's death in 1995.  My son loves the Dead and convinced me that I should see them ... actually he didn't convince me, listening to the recording of the performance he saw in Binghamton NY in early 2011 convinced me.  They're fucking good in my opinion.

I knew I needed to pace myself for the drive back to Boston after the concert, but when it came time I rushed the stage with the other guys and got a good spot pretty close.  We had to stand there for about 45 minutes before the band came on and it was one of the most magical times of the day-night.  We were pressed in like sardines but when you rolled your head right back you could see stars and the video screens were rushing and there were laser lights coming from all over and painting the backdrop and highlighting visual events in the crowd.  There were tens of thousands of people there and they were all centering on what was about to happen on the stage I was standing in front of.  People were throwing glow-sticks and glow-balls, there were not only beach balls all over the place, there was one gigantic beach ball that rolled over the top of the crowd and when it was painted with the green laser it was trippy like you wouldn't believe.  Secondary effects of pot (or course, accompanied by few fancy beers) were hard to ignore.  Jammed up front where I was it seemed that everybody, with very few exceptions, was pulling out their pipes and lighting up and the clouds of pot smoke were totally unavoidable.  You would have had to hold your breath!

After three sequences of guitar techs tuning and 4 sequences of lights going up and down, Phil came out and assumed his place and then the other guys did and eventually Bobby came out.  I had told the boys that in my day they usually opened with Bertha to knock out the kinks and these guys did basically the same thing, opening with the simple rocker New New Minglewood Blues (now apparently called just Minglewood Blues, though it has a pedigree) while they adjusted organ levels and negotiated how loud Phil should be.  I staggered back to join Sarah after that and watched the rest of the show from our seats.

No idea how to describe that show. In some ways it was perfect: I was transported to 35 years ago and the sound and environment and being surrounded by loving people all told me that my life was unlimited.  In other ways it was technically great: especially in the first set Bobby was on fire and his sound rocked, not to mention Phil's outrageous six-string runs that just made you realize that the music you were hearing was nothing compared to the music in this genius's mind.  Where was Garcia?  Oh well, John Kadlicek's guitar runs were miles beyond what a mortal could do, probably exposing his deep experience studying Garcia's phrasings for Dark Star Orchestra.  By no means do I want to slight Kadlicek's contribution, which included some exceptionally soulful vocals like his lead on Stella Blue, which was one of the highlights of the evening.

The audience participation merits its own paragraph.  Some people made a great dragon from a papier mache head, some plastic tubing struts, some Christmas lights lighting up the inside, and some sheets painted with gold sparkles and strolled around in it with a practiced dragonny insouciance.  Phil was so impressed he made a cryptic comment on it.  One guy was parading around with what from a distance looked incredibly like a big pink-orange jellyfish, but when he came closer you could see it was a huge orange parasol draped with gauze of various colors.  Another guy had a happy shark up on a pole, dancing through the crowd.  And the most magical thing was people in the back of the main stage area (who were probably glad the gentle wind was just right) who set free a series of balloons powered by a single candle each.  From right underneath them you could see what they were, like illustrations from Jack Jump Over the Candlestick, but as they drifted up and away they became dancing lights wafting through the night sky past the stage towards the Sound.  *Very* cool.

And I loved the vocal team of Sunshine (Garcia) Becker and Jeff Pehrson, who filled in for the historically absent-minded vocals of the lead guys and brought power and precision where it was needed.  Jeff Chimenti on keyboards switched flawlessly between his big organ sound and his high piano sound, and Joe Russo on drums did just what Kruetzman used to do for me, filling the beat until I realized that that sound wasn't just there, it was supplied by a guy working as hard as anyone on the stage.

So they opened with Minglewood, did Friend of the Devil and Dire Wolf, did Mama Tried and Big River, did Sugaree and Deal, and then started on Mason's Children.  As they say, I didn't know whether to shit or to wind my watch.  My dogs were barking and I tried to stretch out and relax a bit between songs but I was up dancing in a shot.  After the first set the boys came back and were suffering, but some water and some prompting got them gushing about what they'd just seen.  The crowd was rushing back for the port-a-potties and the beer tent, almost sweeping away our little camp in the sea of Dead fans.  The boys held fast and asked how long this would last, which is one of the questions presented to the great Fud of course.  We responded in kind.

The boys tried to talk themselves *out* of going back into the maw, but they ended up talking themselves *into* it and so rushed the stage at exactly the right time to get up in front for the second set.  Sarah and I stayed back and danced and danced.  Johnny had ventured that they'd open with Minglewood and was right ... I ventured that they'd do St. Stephen and The Eleven and it was the opener of the second set.  One of Furthur's fantastic new songs  is The Mountain and they did that, finishing with I Know You Rider, jamming in their best second-set tradition onto Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight (Beatles) into a superlative Let It Grow and then the wonderful Stella Blue mentioned above.

Time for Bobby to rock.  Time for a great Sugar Magnolia and then a flawless segue into Sunshine Daydream, a transition that they'd been blowing for years (well ok, those years were the seventies).  And then it was time for the finale: "Well the joint was jumping, going round and round..."

The band left the stage and a clock check showed it was 12:30AM.  Lots of applause and crowd noise ensued and Sarah and I just chilled with thousand of people milling around us, some walking in slow motion and some lurching from dimension to dimension.  Phil came out and did his heartfelt plug for organ donation and then the band straggled out and did an encore. Again, what was that song?  Oh yeah, Ripple.  This is one of those Dead songs that's been seared into my memory/consciousness and for me to stand on tiptoe and hear the originals sing it in the late night is beyond description.  Sorry, you've got to find that fountain for yourself!

Time to chill and Sarah and I had a few sips of water while waiting for the boys to reappear, which they did with eyes as wide as you might imagine.  We talked about the sets for a bit and then started to gather up our stuff.  We recycled and as mentioned earlier, we were appalled by the amount of trash left by others, some of which we dealt with.  Whatever.  We saddled up about 20 minutes after the set and still had to negotiate a people jam (including a baby carriage that people tried to trample and a cripple-with-leg-in-crutch that people tried to knock over) to get out of the main tent area.  From there it was an ok run back to the street, only to find (as we'd suspected) that we'd have to wait in line for a long time to get a bus back to the parking garage.

Rather than deal with snarling people and busses (some of which might not have air-conditioning), we walked.  I had noticed that the street name of where we got dropped off (Myrtle) was the same as the one we had been on originally, and my map of the area indicated that following this path would head us to the parking garage.  A couple of random cats latched onto this idea and we shepherded them out of the depths of Seaside Park, even though one tried to get run over.  We soon found the parking garage and everyone cheered my sense of reality, as heartily as anyone's is cheered of course.

OK, fill up on iced tea, replenish water bottles, switch sweat-soaked shirts, and we were off back onto route 8 North before 1:30AM, now listening to quiet Grateful Dead.  We were all pretty pumped at that point but the miles led to snores from the back seat and a break was called for at the first rest area when we hit the Pike (where it was a chilly 68 degrees at 3:30AM).  Made it back to Woburn by 4:30 and into bed a bit before 5 ... rock on!


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  2. Didn’t mention it in my original blog, but a couple of years later one incident of bad/incomprehensible behavior in the crowd stands out for me. When the Levon Helm Band started, a rush of people tried to insinuate themselves among those of us who’d been standing up front already. The tall guy next to me and I made an unspoken pact: we stood shoulder to shoulder and no one was crowding between us, though some tried and bounced off. One more “person” tried and bounced off, then tried again. Then we heard this little girl shout to us, “Get THE FUCK out of the way!” We turned around simultaneously, incredulously, and saw it was a 30(?) year-old woman carrying a 7 or 8 year-old girl on her shoulders. The girl was the one who had just shouted and she was staring daggers at us. The woman took the opportunity to push between us dumbfounded adults, and kept on toward the stage.