Like its Northeastern cousin festival, Gov’t Mule’s Mountain Jam, Grace Potter& The Nocturnals Grand Point North has grown by leaps and bounds in each successive year of its three-year existence. Once executed as a combination homecoming and adieu to summertime touring as the Vermont-based band elevated its profile nationwide, the event has approached maturity in 2013 with more than a few notable national acts.
Yet GPN—the band and the festival—has retained its distinction in remaining centered, geographically and artistically, on its Burlington home. Held at Waterfront Park on beautiful Lake Champlain, the artist roster this year included a heavy count of local talent crowding the bill with the likes of Gov’t Mule, The Felice Brothers, Trombone Shorty and Charles Bradley. Ultimately, Grand Point North is a combined celebration of a city, an art form (the greatest of all?) and the artists who participate.
THE DUPONT BROTHERS
With the usually ever-changing Vermont weather cooperating, the first day of Saturday September 15th set the tone for the weekend. While the temperature remained comfortably warm as sunshine came and went, the smooth rotation of the bands from stage one to two began with The Dupont Brothers, chosen as openers though a public vote a festival co-sponsored in early summer by the festival and the weekly publication Seven Days.
The duo may suffer from an embarrassment of riches as their original material resonates with vintage folk-rock overtones driven by a propulsive rhythm section. The band sounded best at GPN when the arrangements were at their most sparse, so that the inclusion of trumpet and violin bordered on made the sextet almost sound too busy for its own good. The extended concluding number, however, lent itself to some healthy improvisation, imparting a discernible logic to the dense musicianship fronted by the brothers.
KAT WRIGHT AND THE INDOMITABLE SOUL BAND
The diminutive figure of the front lady belied the sound of the band but gave credence to its name. The group has moved beyond merely covering the R& B roots of their sound to include original material and, in so doing, they’re moving into the realm of supreme stylists. Kudos to Kat for her vocal restraint—she never engages in diva-type histrionics—while local guitar hero Bob Wagner drives home the emotional point(s) of her singing. As Wright so sagely observed, appearing at events like Grand Point North is altogether different than the usual local venues, and its the kind of higher profile occasion right in line with their evolution.
JOSHUA PANDA AND THE HOT DAMNED
Looking and sounding marked different than in recent years, Joshua Panda provided the first thrilling moments of GPN 2013. The power in his singing was matched only by the way his band high-stepped happily alongside him: rocking together on streamlined pop-oriented material, they generated a joy too genuine to resist. Giving time to a keytar solo late in their half-hour undermined the momentum the band had generated up to that point, but will not erase the memory of the infectious high spirits of their set.
THE FELICE BROTHERS
Bringing a good-natured rowdiness to GPN, not to mention a true authenticity to the Americana genre, The Felice Brothers were simply doing what they do best: eliciting laughs at a wry lyric phrase (simultaneously reeling dangerously around the stage with their instruments), only to offer an image so vivid it threatens to stop them and their audience in mid-thought. Even if they relied on tried and true material for the most part, such as such as “Whiskey in My Whiskey,” the new tune the Felices offered boasted all their virtues, even if it was overshadowed by the sight and sound of the scarecrow figure of Ian Felice, alone at the microphone with his electric guitar late in the set, singing in the voice of God, dismissing out of hand the loyalty and reverence of his followers.
CHARLE BRADLEY AND his EXTRAORIDINAIRES
The jumpsuit and leg splits may immediately call to mind James Brown, but its Bradley’s deep stirring singing that truly hits home and suggests that he may eventually deserve legitimate comparison to the Godfather of Soul, not to mention Otis Reading and Wilson Picket. Like those champions of soul, Bradley has the support of accompanists almost equal in impact to his own presence; such is the unified power of his band, who introduced their frontman with punchy instrumental work at two separate intervals. The Extraordinaires lived up to their name helping in no small part to provide ample return on the risk Bradley took by leaving the stage to return mid-set. Yet the ensemble picked right up where they left off to bring an ambience to Burlington’s Waterfront Park halfway between a dancehall and a church.
GRACE POTTER & THE NOCTURNALS
While there were those in attendance near the front of two stages even before the music began mid-afternoon, the lawn area wasn’t so densely populated as evening crept up and the sky over Lake Champlain becoming an extension of the water’s surface: the atmosphere was nothing but relaxed. But because to many of the growing audience who subsequently pushed stageward for the final set of music, the show really started with the appearance of the headliners after which this festival was named, there was a growing tangible sense of anticipation bordering on impatience as Charles Bradley and his band pushed the length of their set to its max.
The sensory blitz of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals presentation may or may not have been the cumulative effect of the preceding acts, but it was certainly in stark contrast to the understated earthy tone of much of that music. Give the band and its front lady their due though: without playing the nostalgia card, GPN the band posit arena rock moves with a twist: instead of a scrawny long haired guy hitting many notes only dogs can hear, there’s a glamorous woman singing her guts out. Late in the set hosted a huge sit-in when Potter’s good friend Kenny Chesney made a surprise appearance as he joined on stage to sing their song “You and Tequila” and followed it up with “I’m on Fire.”
Their Vermont cache may not mean much outside the Green Mountains, but it’s a fair bet that those audiences, like this hometown gathering, came away with more than a little to talk about after greeting Grace & The Nocturnals when they opened for The Allman Brothers Band, in late August and early September, just before GPN returned home.
Photos by Brian Jenkins/3rd Stone Images