Life Is Good Festival 2011

The second year of the festival put on by the t-shirt company/charity for kids, Life Is Good Company, took place September 24 and 25, picking up right where it left off with the final notes last year.

Kudos to Life Is Good for putting together what has to be the best run outdoor event on the calendar.  Besides a great mix of musical acts, the event is also geared toward family and kid-friendly activities.   Besides the usual face painting type events, there’s bungee jumping, rock climbing, sack races, and a kids tent that featured among others, Keller Williams.  Outside the kid arena, the organizers managed to featuring more adult entertainment from The Hold Steady, Robert Randolph, Maceo Parker, and Levon Helm Band. And, oh yes, they raised more than one million for various kids charities.

With two stages at either end of a large field filled each day with over 10,000 people, the music schedule ran like clockwork. As the final applause died on the Good Vibes Stage, the sound of “Hello Boston, are you ready?” rang out at the other end of the field. This was a nice change, and provided less angst, than having to choose which act to miss to see another.

Even at that, it was not easy to hear all the music, with so many other things going on. There were as many adults bean bag tossing and sack racing and blanket tossing as kids, many with adult beverages in hand. And conversely, seeing an eight year old playing air guitar to The Hold Steady, or other kids dancing to Michael Franti only reinforces the notion that the organizers have hit on a good thing here.

Day one
Connecticut’s Barefoot Truth was given the task of opening the bigger Life Is Good Stage for the day and responded by first attracting a crowd just straggling in and then winning them over with a welcome set mixing rock with a dose of  blues and reggae. The band just dropped their new album, Carry On and played a number of tunes from the new release.

Boston-based duo Dwight and Nicole drew the initial set on the opposite Good Vibes stage, their high energy mix of gospel, soul, and blues sung with seamless harmonies raised the funk level for The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, next up on the opposite stage.

The DDBB reinvented the brass band tradition in New Orleans 30 years ago and is still going with original members Roger Lewis, Kevin Harris, Gregory Davis, and Efrem Towns. (Original sousaphonist Kirk Joseph was not present at this gig, but is said to be touring with the band again). Jake Eckert is the band’s touring guitarist, adding funk fills to the band’s brass. The band still seems to find life even in the old standards like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the crowd responded enthusiastically.

It might seem unfair to stick solo artist Martin Sexton, the well traveled veteran of the college and folk circuit, between the Dirty Dozen and Michael Franti with only an acoustic guitar.  A lesser artist could get easily lost, sandwiched between the two.
But Sexton showed what he had learned about engaging a crowd from early years busking in Cambridge’s Harvard Square doorways.

Literally off the plane from a European tour to the Festival, he confidently opened with a version of the National Anthem. With only an acoustic guitar and a powerful voice that spans more octaves than the human ear can hear, the New York native held ground, keeping the energy level high, serving as a link between the Dozen and Franti bands, singing his road weary tunes, as well as a paean to diners.

The Hold Steady took over the smaller stage next, Craig Finn bringing on his band remarking “We’re the first rock and roll band you’ve seen today”, and preceded to demonstrate his premise. With the sound turned up to 11, the band tore through “Positive Jam”, “Chips Ahoy”, “Southtown Girls”, Sequestered In Memphis”, and “Stuck Between Stations” during their hour long set.
The final 2 bands on the larger stage both served to give in their music the positive messages the festival stands for, though from different viewpoints.  If you were inventing a band to personify the Life Is Good Vibe, sooner or later you’d be inventing Michael Franti and Spearhead. Thankfully they were already available to help spread their message of empowerment.  The band could be seen backstage before their set, laughing and smiling, playing soccer to get pumped up for their set, then came on to “Everyone Deserves Music,” and upped the energy level all the way to the last song “Say Hey”. The barefooted Franti was not only all over the stage engaging the audience, he was in the audience to spread his message, and what has become de rigueur for a Spearhead set, invited kids onto the stage to sing along. As saccharine as “Sound of Sunshine” may sound on the radio, in concert the sincerity and meaning are made apparent by Franti’s enthusiasm.

The closing set of the day was reserved for North Carolina’s Avett Brothers. Talking with the brothers, Scott and Seth backstage before their set, they were positive and upbeat about the new album they had coming out next year, and, looking forward to a few months off from extensive touring to be with family. At the same time it was apparent they were affected by recent news that bassist Bob Crawford’s baby girl had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Crawford had taken a leave to be with his family, and his presence was missed, especially in the interaction between him and Joe Kwon on cello.

The band took the stage at dusk (remember a family event, all done by 9pm) and immediately made the stage their own, working all sides and front to back, as had Franti. The crowd, by now skewed more to an over 20 demographic, many of the stroller set having departed, matched the bands energy from the opener “Go To Sleep”. The band responded with a looser, higher energy set, based less on theatrics than on pure energy and joy of playing through an hour of their best tunes “I Killed Sally’s Lover”, “Head Full Of Doubt”, “Kick Drum Heart”, and “January Wedding”. The brothers took their solo outings with Seth’s “Ballad of Love and Hate”, and Scott’s Murder In The City”, perhaps with close friend and band mate Crawford in mind as he sang “make sure my daughter knows I love her, make sure my son knows the same”.  A two song encore was offered of “Laundry Room” and a surprise cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”.

Day Two

Sunday’s lineup was a match for the previous day’s, beginning with James Brown alumnus Maceo Parker, and ending with Ray LaMontagne, book-ending sets by Brandi Carlile, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Raphael Saadiq, Ryan Montbleau Band, and the Levon Helm Band.

Parker’s albums and appearances keep alive the funk revolution begun by old boss James Brown. Undaunted by a 1:30 afternoon slot, Parker’s band covered the funk bases from Browns Atlanta to New Orleans Meters tunes.

Ryan Montbleau Band followed on the smaller stage. Montbleau, an extraordinary songwriter, brought a new lineup featuring guitarist Lyle Brewer, whose seemingly effortless guitar style made it seem as if the sounds coming from his side of the stage couldn’t have been from his guitar. Montbleau’s stage presence and ability to engage an audience is honed from years of touring and he uses his skills well. Highlight for me was the “75 and Sunny” tune coming just as the sun broke through clouds. “Thank God”, he quipped, “because we don’t have any songs about rain”.

Then it was back to the big stage for the rock and pop of Brandi Carlile, the former style kept dominant over the latter by her secret weapons, the Hanseroth twins, Tim and Phil. The brothers, along with drummer Alison Miner, keep the hard edge on tunes that might otherwise veer into Colbie Caillat or Regina Spector territory.  Highlights of any Carlile set include the Johnny Cash covers, “Jackson”, and “Folsom Prison Blues”, the latter offered here. Rising to a new level was the day’s version of the oft-covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, superbly augmented by members of the Boston Pops, and it was the day’s highlight for many. Carlile also gave us a new song “Dreams”, written last year during a thunderstorm in Boston on her 30th birthday.

Back across the field, weaving past strollers, Frisbees, and a quick stop at the beer tent, for the Robert Randolph Family Band. Setting up his pedal steel dead center at the very front of the stage, Randolph offered his usual high energy set with an abbreviated version of his band,  including his cousin on bass and his sister on backup vocal.  Starting with some slippery guitar and bass work, Randolph slipped in some quick fills to warm up the band then went straight into a cut from his new live album, “Travelling Shoes”, featuring Randolph riding the high notes on the pedal steel, enticing the crowd to dance as the group traded vocals.  Next song was “Back to the Wall” and featured Randolph’s “little sister” Lenesha on vocal, a woman of powerful vocal chords not afraid to let them loose on the crowd, leading into extended Randolph soloing. By the third tune, the crowd was fully involved, dancing vertically as well as horizontally, doing for the Good Vibes Stage on Sunday what The Hold Steady had done on Saturday, got the place rocking.

The sounds of the sacred steel guitar did for Life Is Good what it has done for decades in Southern churches, bring the listener to a higher ground.   When you thought he couldn’t get any higher, he closed off with a tune off the new album, a cover of “Purple Haze”, verifying Rolling Stone’s choice of him as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time.
The Levon Helm Band was next on the Life Is Good stage. These days most of Helm’s activity centers around his upstate New York Rambles.  Venturing out for the summer festival season, he brought his band for the second to last set of the day, just behind Ray LaMontagne.  Helm’s band probably has the most professional players per square inch this side of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band, with Larry Campbell, Brian Mitchell, Jim Weider, and daughter Amy, augmented here by a horn section. His catalog is deep after 50 plus years, and he played many, “Ophelia” “Long Black Veil” “This Wheels On Fire”,  “Tears of Rage” among others. Unfortunately, there is little left of Helm’s distinctive Arkansas drawl, destroyed by cancer battles, so the singing was handled by various band members. A surprise appearance by headliner Ray LaMontagne on “Tears Of Rage”, and “The Weight” was a delight, his voice more than suitable as a substitute for Levon’s. He has appeared with the band before and his singing reveals a debt to Helms, both in timbre and phrasing.

Closing out the smaller Good Vibes stage was LA’s Raphael Saadiq, an unknown to most present at the start, but an old friend by the end,  the highlights of his set were “Heart Attack” from his new album, and a strong appearance from Robert Randolph for a couple of songs.

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs closed out the final day with their usual set of laid back, swampy roots music, an easing back from the day’s energy to send the crowd home. He was joined briefly by Larry Campbell from the Helms band for a romp through Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried."

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