2019 Grand Point North Festival Boasts Diversity & Substance With: Grace Potter, Warren Haynes, JS Ondara, Rainbow Kitten Surprise (FESTIVAL RECAP/PHOTOS)

Unlike Grand Point North 2018, this year’s two-day festival (September 14-15) at Burlington’s Waterfront Park had no theme. Last year, Grace Potter’s fascination with soul/R&B style percolated through the bill both days in the varied forms of the Seth Yacovone Band’s emphasis on funk riffs and Nathaniel Rateliff’s nouveau Van Morrison stylings. In 2019, however, GPN returned to its eclectic roots and the highlights were accordingly diverse, an asset accentuated by one of the festival’s greatest virtues year in and year out: the rapid transition of acts between the two stages (which might well be accompanied by at least a quick voice-over introduction of each performer, for the benefit of both artist and audience).

SATURDAY 

Ben Fuller: Any festival would be hard pressed to find a more affable and accomplished opening act than Ben Fuller. The winner of the ‘Local Band Contest’ as voted by readers of Burlington’s weekly paper Seven Days may have betrayed his influences a bit too transparently as he played an abbreviated set with his fellow Dixie rockers, but that only illustrated how owing a debt is one thing, while honoring one with respect is quite another. This Queen City expatriate, now transplanted to Nashville, certain did justice to Neil Young at his scrappy countrified best, while rendering thoughtful (and thought-provoking songs like “Spark” called to mind Jay Farrar’s deft touch with topicality.

Bailen: Personable, professional and practiced, this versatile trio from New York City was hands down the highlight of Grand Point North Day One (and perhaps the entire festival). The impeccable three-part vocal harmonies were enough to distinguish them from the more ethereal (and ephemeral?) Francesca Blanchard, but twin brothers Daniel and David, along with their plucky distaff sibling Julia brought a breath of fresh air to the proceedings in other ways too. After J Bengoy and Matthew Mercury consciously or unconsciously aped the Cure and Echo & The Bunnymen (with a dollop of Ramones/Dead Kennedys thrown in for good measure), Bailen’s quick-witted repartee stood out because such overt efforts at audience engagement were so scarce throughout the September 14th bill. Yet that virtue was less important than a versatility that found bassist David playing acoustic guitar for a few numbers, Daniel blowing harmonica while he drummed and the plucky Julia fighting laryngitis to perform so forcefully she let loose scorching electric guitar solo near set’s end. The original song introduced as written in Los Angeles might’ve been a bit too sunny for its own good, but the Bailen trio offset that with a flourish through their lusty take on the Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek.”

Lucy Dacus: A cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” ended up a non-sequitur amidst the drone that dominated Lucy Dacus’ set. Segments of dissonant, feedback-laden electric guitar might’ve clarified the near sixty-minute performance, except that the frontwoman did not otherwise project herself sufficiently to register a distinct impression. She certainly wasn’t alone in that regard over the course of the weekend—more than a few artists fell prey to that shortfall–but it was particularly notable given her position on the bill, right at the cusp of a string of high-profile names.

J.S. Ondara: In keeping with his admiration for Bob Dylan, J.S. Ondara held forth in stoic fashion, all by himself with just an acoustic guitar for the duration of his set. As such, the Kenyan was certainly a study in contrasts with Trombone Shorty who followed with a rousing, crowd-pleasing balance of musicianship and theatrics accompanied by his practiced ensemble Orleans Avenue. Ondara might’ve used the rich intonations of his voice to engage more with the audience between songs, but there’s no denying how captivating he sounded as his sonorous singing cut straight through the winds blowing around Waterfront Park.

Grace Potter: While the namesake of the Grand Point North Festival didn’t offer much Saturday night that was novel in comparison to her headlining sets in previous years—we got to hear “Medicine” and “Paris (Ooh La La)” yet again—there was something noticeably different about Grace Potter’s performance that had less to do with the inclusion of new material than a certain sense she was now forcing herself to do something(s) that once came naturally to her. Brandishing the Gibson Flying-V guitar, waving her her blonde hair and gesticulating wildly as she danced, the familiar pitch of her voice somehow didn’t ring true (and it wasn’t necessarily because she was straining to hit the high-notes though that may have been a part of it): perhaps the native Vermont doyen was a bit overeager to preview her forthcoming Fantasy Records album as she did to such great extent the following evening. Whatever the reason, Potter still struck a solid chord with her die-hard fans, thanks in large part to the well-practiced mesh of her backup band (in addition to steadfast guitarist Benny Yurco, the lineup now boasts multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Eliza Jones, bassist Kurtis Keber and a new recruit in the person of Jordan West, a drummer so driving she broke her kick-drum head at one point). Yet even the audience’s response sounded somewhat hollow, as the loyal crowd remained in place through to the end while a steady stream of festival-goers departed over that near two-hour period.

SUNDAY

Sabouyouma: Despite the constant wind throughout the day and night on Saturday, Atomic Pro Audio delivered a clear and present mix over the waters of Lake Champlain September 14th and the sound engineering crew dialed it right back in the next day before Princess Nostalgia was through her novel opening. Dancing and rhyming over backing tracks on her laptop was hardly a sonic match for the poly-rhythmic density created by the seven-piece Afro-funk band that followed. As the first of a few sprinkles fell from the overcast Sunday afternoon sky on the sparse crowd, incantations of peace, love and community may not have resonated as deeply as the bracing pulse of the bass and the various percussion instruments at Sabouyama’s command, much of which continued to echo in the early warm air right through the cosmic incantations of Lady Moon & The Eclipse and the ten-piece pop-rock unit cum dance troupe called The Bubs.

Michael Nau: Despite Michael Nau and his band’s best efforts, their understated sound all too often wafted into the air over the heads of an al fresco audience dramatically inflated by the influx of Gov’t Mule admirers seemingly more interested in the circle of vendors down the concourse The soft glow of pedal steel did underscore the careful repetition in the author’s precise choice of words and while he and his band did quick time their closer, it might’ve been more beneficial to slowly but surely accelerate over the course of the set, rather than wait til virtually the last minute.

Lucius: The ever-expanding audience was eager to hear something substantial by the time Lucius took the stage and it greeted the group with a deserved roar of approval. Sounding absolutely exquisite from the first note—and borderline majestic near or far from the stage—a string trio mirrored the angelic quality in the voices of lead vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Lessig, while counterpoint vocal harmonies, electric guitar and tribal drum interludes accentuated just how piercing the frontwomen could sound too. Unlike some of the acts preceding (and following), Lucius were channeling an eccentric music that came perfectly natural to them.

Gov’t Mule: Whether or not it’s true that that the addition of Gov’t Mule was intended to heighten the level of excitement, not to mention ticket sales, for this year’s Grand Point North Festival (as conjectured by some wags at a distance from the stage), the appearance of Warren Haynes and company was one of the highlights of this second day of GPN. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t so memorable as the titular leader’s duet set with Potter after darkness had fallen: the quartet’s hour-plus set reinforced the distinct impression left by their recent concert release Live at the Capitol Theatre, that is, that newer material like the title song of their latest studio effort, Revolution Come, Revolution Go, isn’t so carefully-wrought or emotionally moving as older selections from their repertoire such as “Beautifully Broken” and “Banks of the Deep End” (according to the graying lead guitarist/vocalist, included in recognition of appearing in Burlington, the home of co-composer Mike Gordon)

Rainbow Kitten Surprise: A word of mouth sensation if there ever was one, more than a few along shore seemed to wonder aloud about the prominence of RKS so high atop the bill. But there’s no denying the shriek that went up as the group took the stage, the first of many that erupted during their show. Stage lighting more extensive than any artist except the headliner may have to some degree triggered that response, but that doesn’t explain repeated singalongs to songs like “Painkillers.” No doubt too, there’s a creative logic behind a sonic pastiche of acoustic and electric guitars and a vocal delivery from founding member Sam Melo often as staccato as the beats behind him. That continuity may have eluded more than some in attendance, but not the rabid devotees who attained a near fever pitch in anticipation of the band and remained near that peak for the duration.

Grace Potter/Warren Haynes: This much-ballyhooed segment was not purely acoustic per se, as Potter played her Hammond B3 organ much of the forty minutes or so, while Haynes wielded an electric just about as often. But apart from Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman,” the inspired choice of songs transcended the arrangement(s), particularly in the case of one suggestion from the native Vermont chanteuse’s brother, Neil Young’s “Ohio;” the political relevance was unmistakable, especially as the duo had, just moments before, so hauntingly sung the flip-side of that 1970 45-rpm single by CSNY, “Find The Cost of Freedom.” An almost immediate segue into “Can’t Find My Way Home,” Steve Winwood’s melancholy masterpiece for Blind Faith, gave way to a modified take on Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” the one instance in this interval where, appropriately enough, Grace Potter let loose with a shriek in her voice. Fully representative of the relaxed air of this collaboration, the closing of “Soulshine” was a precursor to even more spontaneous good cheer during the woman’s closing set with her own band (who had surreptitiously joined in during a cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”).

Grace Potter: Perhaps inspired by the presence and participation of the stalwart Haynes–as well as recent studio collaborators Wolfe and Lessig of Lucius who, ironically, added a soulful strain on a handful of numbers–Grace Potter and her band sounded equally purposeful and passionate during their closing set for this annual event. Even the damp, chilly air couldn’t disrupt the attentive, patient audience remaining after the departure of all but the core attendees, so it was no surprise new songs such as “Repossession” (an unusually clever conceit for Potter as a songwriter) and the (autobiographical?) “Release” hit home, albeit quietly. The festival namesake’s frequent use of an acoustic guitar was a natural extension of her set with Haynes, but it also suggested her performances at next year’s tenth anniversary of Grand Point North should feature two segments, one unplugged and one electric. Such a format should directly address the sense of creeping ennui that afflicted the group’s performance the night before, but of which there was not one iota this night (perhaps the reason the stage manager extended their designated playing period). In fact, by the time the full harvest moon peeked out from behind the clouds in the home stretch and the post-show sound of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” over the PA hearkened to the bright late summer weather in the week to come, there was less a sense of stasis than renewal radiating from Grace Potter and company.

Photos by Ross Mickel

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