Soule Monde, Flaming Lips Lead Grand Point North Festival Day 2 (FESTIVAL RECAP/PHOTOS)

Inclement weather has rarely plagued the Grand Point North Festival, but the precipitation that fell Sunday September 13 made it all the more fortunate that the bill contained some of the more arresting and varied artists on the roster. Mist was in the air from about 4pm on Saturday and the foreboding skies across Lake Champlain the very next afternoon acted as ominous as they looked shortly thereafter, spewing forth a steady shower that turned into driving rain by the time Marco Benevento ended his set of amorphous dance music with a hurried take on the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.

It was almost as if the water fell from the sky to wash away that unconvincing offering, and if that was indeed the case, it made perfect sense for blue skies to open up and allow sunshine to burst through while Greensky Bluegrass played their crisp compelling set. More than a few festival-goers were at Waterfront Park to see this band and deservedly so: they are in fact a band with the unique inner propulsion that signifies a bond not present in every group of musicians. The unity of the five piece came through most clearly on their own material, but  their cover of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Love?” reflected their ingenuity too, if not in such a single-minded fashion as the way they stretched out on the later numbers in their hour-plus set.

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Such coherent improvisation was in short order this GPN, but Soule Monde displayed it in spades during their unfortunately abbreviated showcase. The duo of drummer Russ Lawton and keyboardist Ray Paczkowski had just played here a little over a month ago at the annual Lake Champlain Maritime Festival, but the timing of their appearance this mid-September weekend was especially timely as it coincided with the release of their Smashed World EP on 9/1.  And the way they played would captivate those familiar and unfamiliar with the way the pair slip in and out of the proverbial pocket to ride the flow they create, particularly when Lawton’s series of rim-shots alternated with the assertive slap of his playing around the kit.

Because Soule Monde now tour regularly and across the United States, they might not qualify as local musicians like those that preceded them Sunday afternoon, but their roots in the Burlington music community are unquestionable. More open to skepticism might be the choice of Barishi to open the second day of the festivities at Waterfront Park: the animalistic howl of the vocals combined with violent thrash of guitars didn’t present the most inviting sound. Nevertheless, when followed with the the peppy likes of the The Snaz, the trio effectively broadened the range of styles within the 2015 artist roster. The all-female quartet acquitted themselves stylishly in and out of their playing, their between-song repartee as natural and polished as their renditions of original material.

Heavy Plains might well take a cue from such a professional approach, as the frontman’s clipped monotone before and after a few numbers might’ve left listeners distant from what was otherwise solid rock alternately recalling, in turn, early Alice Cooper, Crazy Horse and Seattle’s Screaming Trees. As with the Snaz, a longer set would’ve been most welcome as the appearance of Spirit Family Reunion, as roundly welcomed to the stage as they were and encouraged by the continuing acclamation even as the rain began to pour, seemed like nothing so much as a means of biding time.

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Perhaps the purpose of which was to delay the appearance of the Flaming Lips til it was darker, thus to better showcase their extensively lit, heavily produced set, complete with two rounds of clouds of confetti and smoke, multiple props including an inflatable semi-profane sign carried around the grounds and leader Wayne Coyne enclosed in a transparent globe he rolled into the audience. If so, that timing was ideal, even if it re-enforced the impression the music of this group was just a means to that end, so much so it begged the question if a band was necessary at all: more than a little of the sound emanating from this circus-like setup of a stage sounded pre-recorded.

As Grace Potter and her band ground their way through their anti-climactic set, the Flaming Lips’ frontman’s presumably facetious comments about the bandleader’s state of mind may or may not have had something to do with the apparent lack momentum: rain began to fall in earnest a fifteen minutes or so into the set, resulting in a marked reduction of the populace on the open ground while those undercover at tables chairs and couches rested easy, perhaps, like the band itself

But it’s not as if the headliners weren’t trying. Rather, they  worked their hardest to gain traction, perhaps fighting suffering night-after doldrums from the September 12 set, the sparkling likes of which was further elevated in intensity by their guests. Contrary to a somewhat dispirited response Wayne Coyne had to constantly fight, there was no lack of encouragement for Potter and co. from the remaining crowed stage front and it eventually paid off, not surprisingly, when Grace took the stage to play an acoustic song by herself. Which in turn begged the question of why she doesn’t offer an extended version of this unplugged approach at GPN given the instrumental arsenal now at her command. (Or, for that matter, allow Bennie Yurco a guitar spotlight of his own like the one she took toward the homestretch)

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That type of novelty is exactly that which such an event such as Grand Point North invites and it might well have framed this final set in a wholly different way than it ended, that is, with exactly the kind of self-indulgent frenzy the previous evening, and truth be told, the streamlined hard rock earlier in the set, completely avoided. Forgetting the Pointer sisters cover (“Yes We Can Can”), it might do well for Potter to avail herself of others material even without guests, if only to add rigor to her presentation and allow the band to flex their muscles as they did on truly great material like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”  and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

Yet, despite her previous experience with both tunes (the former from the 2010 movie soundtrack  Alice in Wonderland, the latter as duet on stage with the rock icons themselves this summer) Potter had trouble finding her way inside these tunes, far more so the latter,  as she tried so valiantly to do them justice. In contrast, as the second rendition of “Medicine” appeared—she had opened with it the night before—the number morphed into an all percussion romp on its Bo Diddley rhythm until slashing guitar lines brought it to a cold stop, precluding any chance of audience chant a la some Grateful Dead shows of yore (Buffalo July of 1989).

More thorough expression of gratitude to vendors, concert operations and musicians were given similarly short shrift by a front-woman who as often as not, as she herself admitted, forgets to say things she’s supposed to on stage. But perhaps, as with so many who stayed for the duration of both nights (and or the Higher Ground after-shows each evening)she was suffering the effects of over-stimulation from the experience of Grand Point North 2015. Forgetting for a moment the erratic quality of the music, the highlights more than compensated as did the various amenities (including grounds maintenance post-rainstorm). Grace did have the wherewithal to note the festival constituted a hearty farewell to summer and GPN did, in fact, wholly confirm its presence as a seasonal bellwether  for the Queen City of Vermont and beyond.

Photos by Rich Gastwirt

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