Its seeds originally sown within the annual Lake Champlain Maritime Festival, Vermont’s own chanteuse of rock Grace Potter and her Grand Point North festival, now in its fifth year, has turned into one of the bonafide highlights of the city of Burlington’s vibrant music scene, so much so that it rivals in prominence its early summer counterpart, Discover Jazz. That’s because GPN, curated in part by the well-established entrepreneurs at Higher Ground, usually populates its roster with almost as many local acts as those of national renown and 2015 is no exception. Smoothly navigating two side-by-side stages, acts can alternate in such quick succession that any music lover has to be continuously delighted by the flurry of sights and sounds (including the diverse demographics of the audience as it grows with each passing hour
First things first regarding GPN 2015: Grace Potter sounds better sans Nocturnals (except the lone remaining member, drummer Matt Burr). Or at least not so forced and heavy-handed as in previous appearances at GPN. Perhaps the addition of additional musicians, now including keyboards and percussion, allows for a more natural flow of musicianship that, even though it approaches bombast at times, doesn’t quite cross the line anymore. Potter’s Zeppelinesque workout with the Gibson Flying V guitar, for instance, is something of a natural progression from her blues roots and while it was difficult to distinguish her voice at its highest pitches from the guitar of Bennie Yurco as he ascended to the upper register with his instrument, that sound wasn’t so shrill as keyboard-dominated numbers.
In fact, there was a palpable sense of dynamics at work by the time Potter’s headlining performance concluded. Phish’s Mike Gordon, having played a set with his own band a couple hours prior, came out to add some serious rumble to an otherwise anonymous classic rock style tune, but that came after a somewhat subdued number where Potter sat and played harmonium, then performed a duet with Yurco. The queen of the ‘Magical Midnight Roadshow,” as she dubbed it about a half-hour into her set, telegraphed her own set closer, “Paris (Ooh La La),” but an otherwise static percussion break served its purpose before an encore began with acoustic guitar and quiet piano (then, unfortunately, turned soporific). The re-appearance of country star Kenny Chesney—he showed up at Waterfront Park in 2013 and 2011—for his latest duet with Potter, “Wild Child,” was perhaps too much of a good thing for an audience in which the shimmy and shakers might’ve been offset by the increasing stream of departees that began roughly at mid-point during Potter & co.’s near two hour show.
But if you’d come early to the first day of Grand Point North, by that time you’d seen the best it had to offer, which was Amy Helm and The Handsome Strangers. Comprised of a single guitar, bass and drums, with the daughter of the late drummer of the Band Levon Helm singing with equal parts heart and guts, the quartet represented a quantum leap in professionalism. Their hour set went by in a flash, its seemingly quick procession accelerated by an acoustic tune, an a acapella rendering of the spiritual “Gloryland” and three distinctly different covers: Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning” (a lesser-known gem from Blood on the Tracks) and Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” which Helm’s dad used to perform with his Canadian comrades. Even sharing the stage with The Trip dance troupe from Stowe, Vermont, who otherwise pranced around the grounds of Burlington’s Waterfront Park during other performances, couldn’t really distract from the combination of soul and sensuality Amy Helm and her band offered.
In a surprising thread of continuity, the Harwood Union High School Assembly Band, who had won a contest to secure the coveted opening slot, closed their set with “The Weight” and while that in itself was a long way from their initial tune, the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music,” it displayed the same logic, if in fact that’s the right description to apply to such an unusual inclusion in the artist roster. But they were earnest and genuine in their approach, as much so as Odessa, the other memorable act on Saturdays schedule: while not overtly recalling Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span, the trio nonetheless brought tranquility to the stage and an audience that had heretofore followed a zig-zag from the almost equally quiet (though somewhat repetitive) Maryse Smith and Michael Chorney, Mal Maiz’ Latino funk parade and the synth-rock of Madaila.
Taking the stage just prior to Grace Potter, Shakey Graves redeemed his elevated position on the bill, delighting the pumped-up audience with constant histrionics. He didn’t play a complete tune til his final number, a haunting blues-derived number that ratified his Austin, TX roots, but that in itself compelled hearing him minus the frenetic stage presentation that intruded upon the music he made with drummer Bo. The rabid response he elicited from the audience was more than ample testament to that.
In contrast, by ostensibly cutting his set with a solo band short to allow for other acts (Graves to follow immediately after), Mike Gordon may have left the most distinct impression with the audience by a combination of a Fiona Apple cover (so recognized with much loud surprise by a nearby concertgoer), lights glowing on his and guitarist Scott Murawski’s fretboards plus his affectionate request of his daughter in the audience to trigger the interactive gadget he had on stage (it didn’t work). Like the Who’s late bassist John Entwistle, Gordon’s tunes supply a welcome change of pace within a setlist of his primary band, but on their own, tunes like “Sugar Shack” don’t really don’t carry that much distinction, hence the somewhat muted response from the crowd that reserved more hearty acclamation for Grand Point North’s namesake a bit later.
Photos by Rich Gastwirt