The second annual Sea.Hear.Now Festival was held on the beach in Asbury Park this weekend and although the lineup, weather and setting were ideal, the festival came up a little short. While there was a lot to love, the crowds were hard to manage. The main stages were stretched further apart and that allowed the festival to sell more tickets. This caused extremely long food lines and pedestrian traffic jams (Saturday was worse than Sunday) that made it nearly impossible to get from one band to another in a timely manner.
Despite the logistical issues, there was a lot that was great about this festival. It is hard not to stress how perfect the setting was. Don’t underestimate standing on a beach with 80 degree sunny skies, your toes in the sand and cool, ocean breezes blowing. Now add some great music, and you can begin to get the picture.
Speaking of music, there was a lot to embrace: new bands making their mark, old bands proving they still have it, and established bands taking the next step.
Of all the bands that played, the one who put on the most mesmerizing performance was Fantastic Negrito. He pranced up and down the stage and in short time, whipped the crowd (that was primarily there to guard prime real estate for Joan Jett and The Lumineers) into new devotees. His vocal range is powerful, and his energy level is incredible. Combine that with a killer band, especially Darian Gray on drums, and you have a Can’t-Miss-Act dripping with blues, rock and soul. Many jaws dropped to the sand during “An Honest Man”, “Scary Woman” and about everything else he played. It had this reviewer realizing that it was ridiculous to aspire to sing like him, but maybe aspiring to hum like him was reasonable. Do not miss him next time he comes near you.
There were three other soul acts that also blazed in the sun. Black Pumas opened the festival on the Sand Stage on Saturday. Although it was early, they were able to engage the young crowd with their brand of neo-soul. Even if the excellent neo-soul didn’t grab you, or you weren’t won over by the three top-notch vocalists; it’d be worth the price of admission to watch the keyboardist dance joyously during most songs. Ripe also burst onto the Sand Stage for an early soulful set on Sunday. The band is fronted by Robbie Wulfsohn, whose warm voice seems to match his welcoming personality. He had as much fun on stage as any performer this reviewer has seen, and took the time to run through the crowd, high-fiving appreciative fans, only to hop back on stage a little out of breath. He shared that he was honored to be performing at a festival with so many legendary musicians, especially Dave Matthews, “who is one of the main reasons I make music today”. He then added that he’d see us out there for Dave’s set later in the night. It was refreshing to see another music fan on stage and not just another jaded performer. As for their set, Ripe delivered a solid 60 minutes of horn and funk-infused soul. Lastly, on the soul front, St. Paul and The Broken Bones rode the Sand stage as the sun started to set. Wrapped in a shimmering purple cloak and a fair amount of schmaltz, Paul Janeway enthralled a crowd of his adoring fans with a crooning set that filled the hour time slot with falsetto laden vocals and campy theatrics.
Acoustic guitar rock featured prominently at the festival too. The Lumineers seemed to take the next jump to a full-fledged festival headliner with their performance on Saturday night. The beach was completely full as the band, fronted by Wesley Schultz, took the stage. What followed was a 90 minute set of well-blended vocal and instrumental harmonies. Bolstered by newest members, bassist Byron Issacs (Ollabelle, Lost Leaders), and violinist, Lauren Jacobson, the band has never sounded better. The band split their 90 minute set by focusing on their September release III, but had ample time to work in a number of songs from their previous two albums. At about the 45-minute mark of the set they strode into the crowd and climbed onto a platform by the soundboard to play three more-intimate numbers. The crowd also passed a lot of love to Dispatch, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, Dave Matthews Band, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Cat Power, and Donavon Frankenreiter, who all performed admirably. But this reviewer was more moved by the performance of Jade Bird, who’s enthusiasm and talent shone through. Bird, who will turn 22 on October 1st hails from the UK and shined on stage with her vocals, songwriting and enthusiasm. Her rapid-fire vocals on “I Get No Joy” and the palpable angst in “Uh Huh” made her stand out from the rest.
Sea.Hear.Now featured a few throwback performances as well. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, The B-52s, Bad Religion, Steel Pulse, Blind Melon, and The Dropkick Murphys all turned in performances that both reminded you why they became so popular and that they still have the chops to perform. None of the bands were in the exact physical shape they were in their 20s, but they weren’t far from it and you certainly couldn’t tell it by their performances. At one point, Ken Casey, the lead singer for the Dropkick Murphys implored the crowd fifteen minutes into his set, “I know a lot of you aren’t big fans of punk rock, but for the next 45 minutes can we all just pretend like we’re 15 years old again without a care in the world and agree to celebrate being here now.” The message was well-received.
There were three more bands that made an impression on this reviewer. Sharon Van Etten had been a familiar name, but it wasn’t until she played live on the Sand stage that her talent stood out. Her smoldering vocals and seething guitar work allowed the audience to see the intensity of her performance and the intimate nature of her work. The Marcus King Band also played on the Sand stage in the heat of the afternoon. Although he is surely talented, from a guitar playing and a vocalist standpoint, this reviewer found him to sound like derivative Southern rock, although the crowd seemed to really enjoy the set. The Wrecks climbed onto the smaller Park stage and put on an excellent set of punk infused indie rock. Their enthusiasm and rock innocence easily won over the crowd with fun songs like “Freaking Out” and “Turn It Up”. In fact, they might have had the best line of the festival when their lead singer, Nick Anderson, said, “we have an hour to kill up here and we have a total of 9 songs out in the world which accounts for all of 28 minutes, so please bear with us.”
All in all, it was another great musical weekend in Asbury Park, and despite the pedestrian issues, I’m sure most of the attendees will be back next year.