Concert: Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, CT
This year's Gathering of the Vibes, the 17th of these multi-day showcases originally conceived by promoter Ken Hays as a way to remember and memorialize the late Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia, was a triumph of sorts--while not without a few disappointments.
One of the most notable buzz-kills of the weekend-long festival had to be Friday's surprise showers. Accompanied by unseasonably cool temperatures, the harsh rain put a damper on what was expected to be a stellar day of music featuring three of the four surviving members of the Dead in their own ensembles, plus two of the bands most talented and endearing supporting players.
The other, which was lamented by fans and Vibes attendees for much of Saturday and Sunday, was the fact that Friday also provided an opportunity for all those Grateful Dead survivors to appear on stage, if for nothing more than to be seen together honoring Garcia's memory just a few days before what would have been his 70th birthday.
Drummer Bill Kreutzmann was on the Friday roster, along with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis, who were regular guest performers with the Dead in the years before Garcia passed, were also on hand.
The rumor of reunion was further fueled when Mickey Hart appeared in the wings during Kreutzmann's set with 7 Walkers, even though Hart was not on the schedule until the following day. Certainly this had to mean there was a Garcia birthday Dead jam session afoot.
But it never happened, and the frustration was palpable once the lights came up for Phil Lesh's second set, and there were no extra drum sets or a keyboards for any extra players to participate.
Those issues aside, anyone who came to the Gathering of the Vibes for the sheer enjoyment of the musical diversity had to exit Seaside Park ecstatic. Each day was individually good to great, with even the occasional pedestrian set far exceeding expectations.
Thursday opened with the inviting, Reggae-flavored material of contest winner Quincy Mumford, who solicited nearly 2,000 likes for a FaceBook music video to best all competitors for the Vibes Day 1 opening slot. And the early birds ate it up, using the sparsely populated field to dance, spin and shimmy amongst gyrating hula-hoops and huge, lumbering soap bubbles.
Zach Deputy and the Yonder Mountain String Band followed, filling time with upbeat blues and bluegrass as the crowd began to swell in anticipation of the late night set by Dark Star Orchestra, which replicated note-for-note an Alpine Valley, Wisconsin Grateful Dead show from July 18, 1989.
Friday dawned as raindrops fell, muddying the Vibes main stage infield and soaking many of the campers who may have packed light and opted to sleep overnight in low-lying tents versus inside vehicles.
Assembly of Dust helped drive away some of the crowd's soggy blues with an early afternoon set of energized and articulate jams. But Mother Nature pushed back by unleashing a downpour as the band exited the stage.
The weather did not seem to hamper a tanned and fit looking Bill Kreutzmann, however, and his 7 Walkers band was in great form running through an instrumental warm-up before shifting into the early Dead boogaloo "Mr. Charlie." The first Vibes appearance of a Dead alumnus reeled back hundreds of attendees and campers who had abandoned the field once the downpour started, and they were rewarded with fantastic musicianship from guitarist/vocalist Papa Mali, bassist George Porter Jr., and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard.
A stepped-up take on "Bird Song," and a soulfully played "Wharf Rat" followed, further elevating the soaked concert-goers' spirits. Kreutzmann's set wrapped with a shuffling "Sugaree," that also tapped the talents of guest Scott Murawski of Max Creek who contributed some blistering guitar work.
The Greyboy Allstars appeared next and did not fall short providing a 90 minutes dose of trippy beatnik beats.
One of the only breaks in Friday's rain came just as the trio of Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis arrived on stage for a dinner-hour set that included some exceptionally well-played Dead tunes and a few minutes of free-form jazz to get things started.
Speaking after the set about the be-bop intro, Marsalis admitted that of all the sessions and all the greats of the jazz world he has sat in with, this set marked the first time he ever stepped on stage with no idea of what the opening number would be.
"Hornsby knew, but I didn't know," Marsalis said. "Even dropping in at jazz festivals, you never get to go out and play whatever...not knowing what we're gonna play. But we just went with it."
That jam morphed into "Too Much Monkey Business," which transitioned into "Dark Star," churning the watered-down crowd into a frenzy. "Big Boss Man" was another highpoint featuring the dueling saxophones of Marsalis and Bobby Reed of Hornsby's Noisemakers.
Primus drummer Jay Lane was invited out to pound the skins during "Me and My Uncle/Mexicali Blues," before the memory of Garcia was brought back front and center with Hornsby and Weir sharing vocals on Jerry's melancholy "Standing On The Moon."
An hour-long break followed before the lights came down, the rain started cranking back up and Phil Lesh & Friends sloshed onto the Vibes stage. Sans keyboards, the opening few numbers were a little clunky and bottom-heavy with four guitars, but the crew sorted out the mix in short order.
Lesh's set was a guitar lover's dream come true with Larry Campbell and Jackie Green trading riffs and licks throughout the show. But it was also something of a family affair with Lesh's sons Brian and Grahame sharing the stage on mandolin and guitar respectively.
The second Friday rendition of "Bird Song" was more in the slow and groovy vein of its original, while a nod to the late Levon Helm brought a hot, swampy version of "Up On Cripple Creek." Lesh sounded energized taking the microphone for "Pride of Cucamonga," and the audience roared its approval when "Tennessee Jed" segwayed into a chugging "Cumberland Blues."
Set 2 opened with an extended "St. Stephan," "The Wheel," and a sweet sounding "Uncle John's Band," and closed out equally strong about an hour later at 1am on the dot with the echoes of "Shakedown Street" wafting over the dark waters of Long Island Sound.
Saturday of the Vibes dawned with no precipitation in sight and the promise of a comfortable, sunny day which helped drive single-day ticket buyers to the turnstiles in droves for the dizzying smorgasbord of sounds that began with Ryan Montbleau.
Montbleau was a perfect opener for the rain-soaked campers who emerged into the bright Saturday morning, hooking early risers with clever lyrics which he occasionally retooled in response to something he was seeing from the stage. "I Can't Wait" and "Sweet Nice & High" cajoled a pretty enthused reaction before Montbleau bowed with a funky take on "Jet Airliner," first popularized by Steve Miller.
Technical issues on stage delayed Dweezil Zappa and clipped a good 10 to 15 minutes off his set, but the guitar wizard and progeny of Frank Zappa came out swinging with a mix of psychedelia and intensity. "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," was a blast echoing back to the early days of the Mothers of Invention and opening up the Zappa floodgates with "Montana," "Dirty Love," "Camarillo Brillo," and "Muffin Man" following.
But a spot-on reproduction of Van Halen's "Eruption/Get Me A Doctor," proved that the elder Zappa was not his son's sole influence. And Dweezil obliged many Eddie Van Halen worshipers in the Vibes crowd, shredding the perfect reproductions with ease.
Following a funky turn from the Bridgeport area's hometown heroes, Deep Banana Blackout, Mickey Hart arrived with a rhythmically driven powerhouse of a band that featured the unforgettable vocal work of Crystal Monee Hall taking the now packed field into the stratosphere with "Love Not Fade Away."
Some new instrumental material followed giving the audience a first taste of "Mysterium Tremendum," Hart's newest project that combines organic and indigenous sounds from his vast library of samples, with the latest translations of light wave and pulsar sounds from deep space. Naturally, some of the material, infused with lyrics from long-time Dead collaborator Robert Hunter evoked shades of Pink Floyd, but with so much more soul than Waters or Gilmour could ever muster.
Hart returned to the familiar with "Franklin's Tower," one of his few contributions to the Dead catalog, a thundering take on "The Other One," and a powerhouse cover of Cream's "White Room," which he told me later the band had never performed before despite the tune sounding extremely well-practiced.
As Saturday afternoon melted into evening, the Stangefolk reunion arrived with an extended set reminiscent of the folkie period of "Workingman's Dead," but offering very little to write home about. Perhaps this pedestrian set from Stangefolk was appropriately placed in the lineup, because the follow-up double tap of Primus and STS9 all but sucked what little energy remained in the Saturday Vibes audience.
Les Claypool was his typical mad self, strutting around slapping and strumming his bass while delivering quirky vocals to the throbbing drum beats of Jay Lane and electrifying guitar work of Larry "Ler" LaLonde. "Frizzle Fry," "Lee Van Cleef," and "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver," were just a few of the high octane favorites from Primus, which was making a second return to Bridgeport after a blistering Vibes set in 2010.
Sounding significantly more tribal than Tangerine Dream, and decidedly more progressive than Pink Floyd, Sound Tribe Sector 9 with its mesmerizing instrumentals and kaleidoscopic light show was a fantastic closer for the main stage, lending just the right energy to the deflating crowd which managed to hang on in respectable numbers until 2 am Sunday morning.
Sunday at the Vibes brought the 17th Annual celebration to a close with festival veterans Keller Williams, Max Creek, Steel Pulse and the Avett Brothers. Each of the Sunday acts had unique appeal to their respective fanbases, but were also individually accessible enough to hook a few crossover converts.
Sunday also may have marked the end of a successful five-year run for Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, and while founder Ken Hays continuously asserted his interest in coming back to Seaside Park in 2013 and beyond, city officials were not so quick to issue a public return invitation.
It would be unfortunate if this festival had to relocate from such a pleasant and easy-to-access location, but the results of negotiations to that end will likely not be known for months. In the meantime, Deadheads and jam band fans will have to keep their fingers and mud-caked toes crossed in the hope that Gathering of the Vibes will survive in the Park City, or at another alternate site for years to come.