Gathering of the Vibes 2014 begins TOMORROW
For complete Gathering of the Vibes festival information, visit www.GOVIBES.com.
Here are the reflections from our Jam man on the scene last year…
Gathered Thoughts on Vibes 2013…
The day Jerry Garcia died, I learned that my first (and as it turns out only) child was on his way to joining the world. The despair I felt was thus greatly eased, but I knew I shared with a vast community a sadness at the end of an era. Who then knew that from the ashes of the Grateful Dead so wondrous a burst of fresh life would emerge? I’m not just talking about little (OK, at 6’4″ no longer little) Huckleberry Jerome. The depth and diversity of dance-happy delirium that has grown up in the years since 1995 is cause for celebration, and this year, as I observe a matured young man taking an increasing liking to both bluegrass and electronic dance music, I found the perfect venue for joyous reflection in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for where for four days each year the sea meets the glee in the form of the now 17-year-old Gathering of the Vibes at Seaside Park.
I’ve been to a lot of festivals, but surely I have missed a lot more, so I can’t say with authority that the 2013 Gathering of the Vibes was the best ever, but for this veteran jam lover, the latest production from Ken Hays and Co. will remain lodged firmly in upper ranks of satisfying festivity. The amazing bill, heavily Dead-flavored as always, but funky to the max and full of favorites from every rock-related genre, is the obvious foundation for the glorious groove I found infecting my every membrane, but really, there was so much more: The weather was good — even the persistent light rain throughout most of Dark Star Orchestra’s expert Thursday night rendition of the Dead’s 9/25/76 show at the Capitol Centre in Landover. Md., was more cooling than soaking, in my hoodie-assisted experience — and the crowd, a nice spread of ages from next-gen first-timers to Deadheads of four decades or more, exuded a generally friendly vibe, much lower key than say, the raucous hordes of that era’s Nassau Coliseum, separated from the Vibes site by the narrow Long Island Sound and for many attendees by a few mellowing decades. Packed loosely enough to move through comfortably, yet spread copiously enough across the wide main field and the waterside second stage area to convey the full-on Big Event feel, the Vibes crowds demonstrated in force that boogie fever remains alive.
Not that death can always be forestalled. A couple of passings affected the gathering in different ways. One, an overdose in the campground, likely passed unnoticed by most, a sad statistical footnote except to those close to it. The other, distant and of natural causation, left a deeper imprint. The Vibes may have been born in 1996 to keep alive the spirit and community left behind by Jerry, but in 2013 its animating spirit became, unpredictably but fittingly, another great songwriter and guitarist, JJ Cale, who died of a heart attack in California on the festival’s second day.
Naturally, there were tributes onstage and off, and enthusiastic covers of the Tulsa-raised Cale’s hits, but even in the aggregation of the eclectic lineup and the fan base that gave rise to it, the influence and spirit of the man could be discerned in the background, just where he usually chose to reside. A distinctive mixer of blues, folk, and jazz, Cale’s origins as a studio engineer enabled him to become an early user of electronic music tools within roots music contexts, pushing forward an epic movement carried “furthur” by the Grateful Dead, among others. That flow was found in full flower at the latest Vibes.
The interplay of genres represented in the Dead’s work and all that emanated from it was carried forward at the Vibes through another element for which Cale was celebrated, a spirit of sharing, be it through collaboration or inspiration. Everywhere you looked, it seemed, a cool cover was trotted out, or some guest star was sitting in onstage, and nowhere did the phenomenon resound more fully than in the encore to Gov’t Mule’s powerful Saturday set, a stirring rendition of Cale’s “After Midnight” featuring guests John Scofield and the seemingly omnipresent George Porter Jr. and Bill Evans.
Porter himself had just been paid his own tribute when The Roots covered The Meters’ “Handclapping Song” — which I missed, having fled the main concert area after “What They Do” to go see Steve Kimock Featuring Bernie Worrell and Friends at the breezier Green Vibes stage. There, too, Porter could be found, haunting the stage and grooving, representing for a generation that launched and has continuously propelled the funk energy that is at the core of the dance-centric jam scene, be it in R&B staples favored by the Dead and particularly the Jerry Garcia Band or in the electronic sounds that for the most part rule the wee hours at the Vibes. No collaboration better symbolizes the synchronicity between the freestyle groove of the Dead and the funk forbears of 21st century boogie buffs than that between Worrell, P-Funk co-founder, Talking Heads mainstay, master of the Woo-niverse, and humble yet revered ambassador for all things funky, and Kimock, probably my favorite improvisational guitarist to occupy the Jerry Slot over the years (and that is truly saying something, considering the heady “competition”). Of course, since Bernie has played with just about everyone, the connection might seem incidental — but here they are, jazzy jam man Kimock and funk icon Worrell, making a rollicking go of it together in theaters and clubs as well as in front of a heaving throng on Vibes Saturday, just downright killing it in support of the sparkplug singing of guest vocalist Camille Armstrong (Camille, I predict, will kill at the Catskill Chill, where she will give voice to The Motet’s “Funk is Dead” tribute, knitting yet another strand into the ties that bind the denizens of Deadheadland to Funk Nation).
On my mountain property in California, I sometimes recline in the center of one of the “fairy circles” — rings of redwoods grown up around the stumps of a enormous old-growth trees clear cut a century ago. Lamentable though the loss of the ancient giants may be, what has replaced them is truly magical, and it serves for me as a metaphor for what has grown up in the space created by the absence of the Garcia-era Grateful Dead. In place of mammoth stadium shows with all their attendant hassles, we enjoy much more intimate encounters with a dazzling diversity of musicians, many of whom carry forward the musical DNA of the Dead, while others capitalize upon the demand for dance grooves to grow the forest of fun in new and creative ways. The Dead used to provide to Deadheads introductions to new music by featuring interesting opening acts, but too often half of the crowd ignored the gifts set before them, focused instead on pre-show rituals of a non-musical nature. Now, one can experience a bounty of bodacious sounds, new and old, with the added bonus of experiencing one-of-a-kind meetings of the musical mind occasioned by the festival format.
“Festivals like this are the main place musicians can cross paths and jam together,” avid collaborator Kimock noted in the press tent, reflecting upon how the phenomenon affects not only the audience but the players. “Most of the time we’re out on the road doing our own thing.”
The one-off partnerships that transpire at festivals like the Vibes often sizzle but admittedly at other times fizzle, especially when too many new pieces come together at once on anything more complex than a single rock standard. For the Gov’t Mule tribute to the departed JJ Cale, the audience, uniformly familiar with the celebratory “After Midnight”, supplied much of the “let it all hang out” energy for what was the first full-throated, large-crowd shout-out to the lost icon. It’s not that pros like George Porter Jr. and Bill Evans didn’t have anything to add, just that there is only so much room in some collaborations for virtuosity to find a place. I loved saxman Evans’ contributions to Phil Lesh and Friends, where space opened up for him to reveal the genius for dance grooves sometimes hidden in his illustrious past with Miles Davis. Joining the Three-Johns-and-a-Joe (Kadlecik-Scofield-Medeski and Russo) version of Phil and Friends, Evans, like Clarence Clemons and Branford Marsalis before him, found a natural space for his horn to flourish in the Dead groove. Meanwhile, Scofield’s frequent forays into spacier jams were repeatedly reined in after awhile by Phil, perhaps disappointingly to lovers of exploratory improvisation but probably for the best when one considers the amped-up state of a full-fledged primetime audience ready to get its collective freak on. In the end, this is a popular medium, and the people vote with their feet.
Not that anyone was going anywhere. The prime slot for Phil and Friends Friday and Saturday nights remained the common touchstone for a crowd clearly attuned to the rhythms of the Dead experience. That having been said, the diversity bred of cross-pollination that has grown and strengthened the broader jam band scene, while reflecting the eclectic musical heritage of its primary progenitors, has brought before enthusiastic audiences altogether new and exciting opportunities for musical joy. When Ken Hays and friends founded the Vibes as “Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe” in 1996, they were keeping something — a community, an idea, a spirit — alive, but not necessarily seeking to freeze it in time. The Vibes has evolved, with electronic sounds emerging as late-night staples and a funk-heavy bill round the clock reflecting both an honoring of the Dead’s party-hearty tradition and a mandate to the Vibe Tribe to forevermore “get up offa that thing — and dance til you feel better.”
On that score, the soul of the Vibes remains tightly bound to the legacy of both the Dead and the music that the Dead drew upon to excite their fans. JJ Cale’s smooth phrasings doubtless appealed to many, but the furious dance energy that kept the waterfront hopping into the morning light points the way to the present and probable future of jam festivals. The Vibes honors the past as few festivals do — how else to explain Master-of-Ceremonies-for-life Wavy Gravy’s between-sets routines, heard by few, understood by fewer, yet quite conceivably beloved by all? — but the memory of the Dead and the rich history associated with the band and its cultural underpinnings may have faded a bit in the middle of the night, when noted DJs such as James Murphy (LCD Sound System) and Rob Garza (Thievery Corporation) concocted mixes that kept sleep-skipping dance fiends on the move with a different groove. Later still, at the Silent Disco on the beach west of the campgrounds, sinking my toes into that soft sand Sunday morning was mighty welcome after an overly prolonged attempt to shake a body part to each electronic impulse promulgated by Papadosio in the final late-night Green Vibes slot, all on the least forgiving of surfaces (bad call on my part). Maybe it was just the asphalt fatigue, or the fact that I had by that point been doing the full-on bounce, swivel, and hop for the vast majority of the previous 18 hours, but I did experience a fleeting sense of musical boredom at that point. I like electronic dance music just fine, up to a point, but I was far more ignited by the funkfest of the first two late-nights, when Kung Fu and the Dojo AllStars and Bridgeport’s own Deep Banana Blackout played killer sets featuring each other’s members as guests. The funk is strong with these ones.
Nowhere, though, is the funk as funky as when Fishbone takes the stage. I’ll admit to a bit of bias here. I cultivated my groove to Angelo Moore’s far-out unit dozens of times while on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour, and have always had a soft spot for the effervescent, crowd-surfing, body-bending front man and his all-over-the-musical-map combo. At 47, Angelo still shakes it like no other, keeps up a full-throated vocal assault even as he is being tossed like a ragdoll by the crowd, and manages to embody the spirit of both funk and punk. Chatting amiably after his set, he points out that when he was coming up, he was simply caught up in the spirit of the times, and felt no obligation to restrict himself to a particular genre. That expectation-avoiding, spirit-freeing approach is one I hope will take hold among musicians and music fans alike as we move into the next phase of festivalizing. There are so many great-looking events now that it is tempting to view the Vibes as just another sensational sound salad, one a shade more Dead-flavored than most, but in substance not so very different from the rest of the field. There are a number of things about the Vibes that set the event apart, though, and they are worth considering.
First off, it may be an unscientific metric, but rating jam festivals by the degree of wear and tear on my footwear yields at least this superlative in regard to the Gathering of the Vibes: For the second Vibes in a row, my relatively rugged sport sandals failed to survive Bridgeport. That may reflect, in part, the Furthur shows preceding the enthusiastic pounding of Seaside Park’s by-now-hallowed earth, but the fact that the rare repeat rupturing of the rubber took place at this particular jamstravaganza was surely no accident. The Vibes is tailor-made for the marathon boogie-down. From the bonus Thursday headlining of ever-reliable Dark Star Orchestra (show number 2222 for DSO!) to Sunday’s closing Black Crowes set, the flailing-to-swaying quotient remained as high as most of the crowd. While I did note a certain slowing for some acts, and a lot of puzzlingly stationary young guys doing a head-only nod-dance at Papadosio, the heavily Dead- and funk-inflected bill generally kept the patrons pumping those limbs. Dance-friendly grade: A+.
It is as boogie bonanza, then, and not luxurious setting or distinctive festival lineup, that I offer my primary evaluative take on the Vibes. Not that the setting wasn’t great — the proximity to the water and beach and especially the breeze (hello again, JJ Cale, I’m pretty sure I heard “They Call Me the Breeze” somewhere, but I can’t place where) was far more a felt presence than inner-city Bridgeport’s supposed dangers — and the music was just what one would expect at an event born to keep alive the Deadhead tradition: Two nights of Phil Lesh and Friends, one of DSO, Max Creek on Sunday, lengthy Dead segments from Original Strangefolk, numerous covers from the GD repertoire, and plenty of the Good Old Grateful Dead blasting in the campgrounds. That alone, plus the aforementioned cornucopia of funk, made the Vibes a success. The demographic mix may have played a role, as well. At many Dead-centric affairs, the advancing years of the fan base take an increasing toll on the dance quotient. At the Vibes, the youth were out in force, and while many don’t match their forebears’ commitment to maximum tripping of the light fantastic, plenty do have the dance fever, and their taste for electronic beats through to the dawn provides a valuable corrective to the chill-down night vibe often evident elsewhere.
That said, the Vibes is as family-friendly as advertised. Strollers abound, the grassy play area is shaded and welcoming, and the School of Rock, where proud parents hover with video cameras and pre-pubescent frontboys belt out “Suck my Kiss!” with maximum swagger, is a real kick in the pants. I spent some time watching a nonstop progression of junior rockers strutting their stuff, and most of them were quite good. The future of rock would appear to be in good hands.
As for the non-musical dimensions, there were the usual craft and food vendors, booths devoted to good causes, and a few curiosities worth looking in on — Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s fame stamping messages on money, a free home growing kit giveaway at 4:20 for the funkiest dancers (I gave my prize to my ride, who I am sure will make excellent use of it). I was delighted to catch up with environmental writer Jim Motavalli at the Green Vibes stage, if irritated to have to stare down a lout trying to yell him off the stage (“No politics! We want Twiddle!” he slurred, somehow not noticing the equipment being transferred behind the wise words being offered). Strolling through the neatly kept grounds, I marveled at how mellow and friendly it all seemed. My crazy sunglasses drew repeated encouraging exclamations (only one urged me to “Go back to the Eighties!”). Sure, the cops were getting pretty aggressive in the parking lot Sunday night after the Black Crowes’ rousing finale, but it seemed pretty targeted; I really can’t judge, since I didn’t feel compelled to investigate, what with all the finishing off of cooler remnants and saying goodbye to new friends that comes with the end of every such gathering.
Regrets? I have a few: Missing old favorites Max Creek because dancing while juggling on the beach at the Silent Disco (great headphones, great, cool, dance-friendly sand) well past sunup just didn’t prove conducive to throwing down again at the crack of noon Sunday. Missing John Scofield’s Uberjam because, well, Galactic! Still, if I had known Stanton Moore & Co. were going to come on late, I would have trotted over to sup on a bit of the Scofield stew. Missing the Revivalists, whose presence at the Green Vibes stage may have been responsible for the surprisingly sparse crowd at the Main Stage for the ever-excellent Railroad Earth. Their charismatic frontman David Shaw did make an impression as a guest with Galactic, though, so loss recouped! What else? Getting caught in traffic and thus missing the Jason Crosby band Friday (A. to the most frequent Q.: No, no relation to David). I did catch this master jammer in several stroll-on guest shots, though, and man, he is a natural at finding spaces within others’ grooves for interesting interaction. Check him out.
So many discoveries, so much food for thought. So much to do that I almost forgot to eat (hot sun will do that to ya). But since you might have asked while I wasn’t listening, the food was fine, Typical pricey concert fare, but what I sampled was mostly good. The big egg, cheese, and bacon sandwich for $4 at 5 a.m. wins an appreciative tip of my sweaty cap, and hey, campground with coolers and camp stoves, plus being a not-terribly-long walk to offsite food in Bridgeport — it beats being stuck with only $8+ options in the woods or some resort somewhere.
Speaking of which, the Long Island Sound may not be the Maya Riviera, but then again. instead of thousands for a room, camping passes were a bargain, there were hot showers, or free ones down at the beach, and that cool shore breeze was a delight, especially when shaking it hard near the Green Vibes stage. The Vibes is as well-run a festival as I have experienced, and at less than two hours from New York City by public transit, it occupies a sweet spot that is not to be missed.
Rock on, Vibes Tribe. Hope to see you again next year.