Jackson Browne, Nathaniel Rateliff Shake Up Grace Potter’s Grand Point North Festival (FESTIVAL RECAP)

Like the best festivals, Grand Point North is a study in contrasts and perhaps no more so than in its eighth iteration, once again curated by Grace Potter and Higher Ground. Since its inception in 2011 headliners have come and gone over the years, that is, in addition to its indirect namesake (and now new mother), but the GPN roster of artists this year, featuring Jackson Browne and the Magpie Salute in addition to Ani Di Franco and Nathaniel Rateliff, may, in fact, be its heaviest to date (or at least in the five years since Gov’t Mule and the Felice Brothers were the arguable highlights at Burlington’s scenic Waterfront Park).

Meanwhile, the extra-musical attractions of GPN remain. Including oversize inflatable toys for kids, a sensory-stimulation tent available for all ages, not to mention the circle of eclectic food and drink offerings as well as yoga lessons plus social and health-conscious vendors, one of the last events of the festival season was scheduled almost exactly on the cusp of summer and fall. But the barometric pressure rose in its favor September 15th and 16th , so that, after a distinct whiff of autumn the prior weekend in the Green Mountains, abundant sunshine and humid temperatures recalled last year, as did the action from the two stages set up on the shore of Lake Champlain.

Saturday.  September 15th

Jackson Browne practically owned the first day of the festival and that was no small accomplishment given the other special guests who showed Saturday the 15th. Kenny Chesney appeared yet again (on “You and Tequila”) while Bernie Sanders himself introduced the event’s namesake. If that doesn’t sound like mixed messages aplenty, consider this: the country artist got what was arguably the loudest acclamation of the whole day—begging the question of who constitutes Potter’s fanbase—while the Senator from Vermont didn’t exactly elicit a roar of approval throughout the crowd as he assumed a spotlight rendered all the more glaring by his white hair and a somewhat condescending tone to his voice.

In contrast, after delivering the unexpected during his own extended set Jackson Browne brought more surprises during his sit-in with Potter and her band for an extended encore. The brilliant songwriter took over as the defacto bandleader late in the evening, not only offering a choice selection of songs rife with a political under current, but perhaps just as importantly, incorporating the stringed-instrument wizardry of his accompanist Greg Leisz into a group that wallowed in empty bombast during their own performance with the Vermont chanteuse. Supporting Browne and Leisz, Grace Potter and company morphed into a sleek group of back-up musicians and singers for “Doctor My Eyes,” Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers Guns and Money” (no doubt leaving the  the late great author smiling wherever he is!) plus “Running On Empty,” a closing number turned into the height of irony through the full throttle drive with which it was played.

All this occurred some two hours following a set of Browne’s that stood out on its own terms, not just for its relative intimacy with only aforementioned in-demand session-man in tow, but for the very bravery with which the stripped-down performance was conducted. No question Ani Di Franco was a hard act to follow, especially given the fact her performance was the first one of the day in which songs actually turned into music in and of itself; as she and her band played, there was a palpable sense of another (and much higher) plateau of performance art coming into play. This elevated level of live musicianship was stark contrast to the preceding litany of ever-so-earnest artists prior who, while they impressed in one way or another by the time they finished playing—Darlingside for their exquisite mix of acoustic instruments and sweet vocal harmonies, Miku Daza for an unabashed homage to Siouxie & The Banshees—may have left only scant impression on the growing numbers in a sold-out crowd.

Like the well-established proponent of female empowerment that preceded him, the long-time comrade of the Eagles offered something else altogether, not the least of which was god-daughter Ariel Zevon’s sit-in for “Cold-Hearted Empath,” an original song hearkening to her late great father Warren’s work and begging vocal comparisons to Linda Ronstadt in her prime. Yet  the first half hour of this penultimate appearance on the bill was otherwise casual almost to a fault: intelligent and well-intentioned tunes about cultural assimilation and the history of the railroad (a country swing art song the author described it) sounded slight when followed by “Late For The Sky” alone, played on electric guitar rather than piano.

But an equally somber “For Everyman” brought to mind one of the main distinctions in Jackson Browne’s songwriting: no matter how introspective he becomes, his vision turns inevitably turns outward to the world around him. Being handed a different guitar every tune only spoke to how ingenious are his melodies based on unusual tunings, while the finely-embroidered nuance of his lyrics found a corollary in the subtlety Leisz brought to bear on electric and acoustic guitars, as well as lap and pedal steel. Browne’s tribute to Glenn Frey came off almost as a mere aside until the audience began to sing along with “Take It Easy” and the deceptive hedonism of that writing collaboration with the late co-founder of the Eagles was effectively tempered by the segue the duo enacted into “Our Lady of the Well,” the same transition as recorded on Jackson’s second studio album.

If that forty-five-year-old cull communicated just how finely the man’s work is aging, it also served to point up how Grace Potter’s is staying the same, at least for now, even after the birth of offspring from her second marriage. Contrary to pre-festival interviews, where she spoke all-too directly (albeit vaguely) of newly-emerging sounds, the first set she played with her band at Grand Point North 2018 was generally the same  mega-decibel approach she’s favored over the years. Remarkably, this high-octane attack has changed hardly a whit during the dissolution of her old band, the Nocturnals, and the crystallization of a whole new group; the only holdover from earlier configurations is guitarist Bennie Yurco, a veteran Vermont musician the front-woman continues to describe as ‘the mayor of Burlington.’

That reference rang less hollow than some of her between-song repartee and, even given his long-term position as a sideman, far less so than much of the music he played with Grace Potter this picture-perfect late summer evening. Thus it was that next to no musical dynamics came into play  until the leader sat at a keyboard near mid-point of the performance, then later when wielded an acoustic guitar for the start of the encore: her understated duet with Jackson Browne on John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery;” wasn’t quite the scintillating solo interpretation in 2014 of the song Bonnie Raitt helped make famous, but it did set the stage for an extended coda, including the return of Chesney, the rousing likes of what ensued may have left anti-climactic the second day of Grand Point North 2018 for many of those who returned.

Sunday September 16th

If the second day of Grand Point North 2018 did not, in fact, deliver the same electricity erupting from the prior night, then it was at least an honorable extension of the range of styles ping-ponging between stages so efficiently managed from set to set. The swirling crescendos of Julia Caesar’s instruments sounded like nothing so much as a reflection of the balmy breeze off Lake Champlain this bright Sunday afternoon, invocations of atmosphere and art as notable as the political awareness Mt Joy displayed in their encouragement to the audience to vote. This act of social responsibility was as ear-catching as the band’s delicate slight-of-hand on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a gesture that belied their otherwise muscle-bound hard rock.  

The winner of the Seven Days-sponsoredLocal Band Contest,’ Nina’s Brew, impressed as much with their self-restraint as the previous afternoon’s Clever Girls. As did West End Blend, who more importantly introduced funk inflections that carried over to the next day. And if the latter Burlington group sounded a bit more derivative than the Seth Yacovone Band—who are bringing propulsive new life to the concept of the power trio–they were self-deprecating enough not to come off too precious for their own good.

No matter the context in which the burly Vermont native plays—from solo acoustic to a blues trio and multiple Grateful Dead cover bands–the sage frontman of the threesome invariably devises a wise setlist and this one was laden with syncopation-heavy songs by which he bore full speed ahead with his similarly taciturn (but instrumentally courageous) bandmates. In doing so, SYB echoed the danceability of JUPTR and the more overt R&B stylings of Sister Sparrow (who may have already claimed for their own the emotion-laden terrain to which Grace Potter aims), not to mention the recurring punk ethos of this year’s GPN: ending their truncated set in a torrent of noise emphasized electric guitar as only one other band did this weekend.

The Magpie Salute therefor  acquitted itself in style before an audience that, even though it contained a demonstrative knot of admirers right up front, had dwindled markedly at the close of Caroline Rose’s ramshackle offering; perhaps that accounted for the seemingly diffident attitude within somewhat curt song intros from titular leader Rich Robinson, but this co-founder of the Black Crowes (with his estranged sibling Chris of CRB) otherwise radiated a distinct air of authority  over the next hour-plus. His multiple and intricate maneuvers with his guitar partner Marc Ford (like bassist Sven Pipien, also an alumnus of the ‘old band’ as Rich called it) allowed frontman John Hogg to fulfill his role with as much good-humor as dignity.

Proffering an astute mix of new original material and knowing choices of the Salute’s shared history, this sext was keenly aware how “My Morning Song” echoed “Send Me An Omen” from their debut album High Water I. And the placement of the former tun ecaught the attention of more curious onlookers following so closely on the heels of a blistering take on Led Zeppelin’s “Custard Pie;” Hogg’s laughing intro was at least a somewhat more direct acknowledgment of influences than Nathaniel Rateliff expressed.

But no matter. With his band The Nightsweats, Nathaniel Rateliff certainly brought a raft of concertgoers to Waterfront Park, most of whom turned giddy as they relished his eminently palatable mix of vintage R&B in the form of “S.O.B.” and “I Need Never Get Old” (and then, in a discernibly steady stream. departed directly after he and his band were done). The limited effect(s) of his stage lighting aside, Rateliff’s healthy allotment of stage time became a haunting, almost subliminal evidence of his demographic’s narrowly circumscribed sense of musical history, but that was a notion trending  throughout the performances of and responses to the roster of GPN performers all weekend: it’s questionable many listeners may subsequently research those antecedents of Rateliff’s he so often echoes–primarily the early Seventies period of Van Morrison—but they might do well to emulate the excited gentleman at the water’s shore in that respect as well as their adulation for this hirsute, husky crooner.

If recognition of roots or lack thereof was the overriding theme of Grand Point North 2018, it was a worthwhile point of reference for the festival’s future configurations, notably reaffirmed in no uncertain terms during Grace Potter’s closing set. If not exactly absent of melodrama,  the woman’s otherwise abandoned antics precluded saccharine sentiment, except perhaps for the singalong on Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” where most of the Nightsweats had appeared to amplify its impact. To his great credit, Rateliff & company added even more emphatically to a valiant rendition of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind:” this standard stood out, not only as an overt nod to its co-author as an icon of feminism, but also as deferential admiration of the rhythm and blues style to which the Vermont native pretends. That artistic avowal, however, found contradiction in the unveiling of two brand-new new Potter originals, “Back To Me” and “Everyday Love,” neither of which revealed much evidence of her self-avowed artistic ambitions

But even as Grace was unusually self-effacing in her admission of the novel material as works-in-progress, the fruits of such collaborative labor might well not come too soon given the multiple repeats from the preceding night’s performance. While the co-curator of GPN usually isn’t given to much irony, the incessant hammering of  “Medicine” and the Zeppelin-esque faux blues of “Nothing But The Water,” were just two inclusions that actually elevated a nascent air of anticipation for the 2019 event, in part because, despite the reappearance of Kenny Chesney and Jackson Browne, another take of “Running On Empty” didn’t evince the lift of the previous evening’s. It was left to the recorded voice of Frank Sinatra, broadcast over the sound system, to bring closure (and some measure of righteous benediction) to this festive weekend and that was, in some strange fashion, wholly appropriate.

Photos by Ross Mickel

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