2008 GotV brings good vibes to CT

2008 Gathering of the Vibes
Words by Joy Rosenberg

With festivals cropping up across the country that seek to attract music fans from all walks of life, Gathering of the Vibes, despite its varied lineup, manages to remain a true Deadhead festival.  It began in 1996 as a memorial party to celebrate the life of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, and was originally called “Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe.”

In 1997, it was given the name we call it today, and the festival moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, a town known for being the later-life home of circus founder P.T. Barnum.  The festival then moved away to New York for a few years, but has since returned to its current Connecticut site, Seaside Park, a small enclave in an otherwise urban East Coast town.

Those in attendance this July 31st to August 3rd came not only to see Grateful Dead members Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay, Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh, but to also live for four days truly separate from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life.

Although final numbers are being calculated, festival production coordinator Jon Dindas said that the Vibes averaged 20,000 people per day.  People who attend year after year consider themselves part of the “Vibe Tribe,” and it’s easy to see why.  One weekend spent at the secluded and serene waterside festival with good vibes emanating from both musicians and fans alike creates a strong feeling of community that isn’t present at many of the larger festivals.

Pyramid Mother.jpg The festival site wraps around a peninsula-like stretch of jagged coastline upon which the Long Island Sound laps during the morning and early evening.  By midday (and later at night), the water recedes to expose sandbars that stretch about a hundred yards off the coast, and festival goers, when not listening to music, participating in yoga, or shopping in the handcrafted vending and art booths, could be seen picking seashells, hopping along rocks, and lugging canoes and jet skis out to the swells.  At night, boats pulled up as close to the shore as possible to hear the music blaring from the concert field.

The entrance to the park, near the campus of the University of Bridgeport, is a large stone archway that heralds the end of civilian existence for the next four days and the entrance into the Vibes world.  Immediately, campers can decide if they’d like to stay in the Family Camping (quieter) area or the larger (and much rowdier) lots farther down the road.  Vending and food could be purchased inside the concert field area, or much later into the night on vendors’ row, the roadway that led up to the second, smaller Solar Stage.  To get to the Solar Stage, fans also had to pass the NPO Village, a group of non-profit organizations dedicated to political, environmental, and social activism.  Here, Green Vibes, the festival’s environmental awareness organization, aimed to educate members of the Vibe Tribe about renewable resources and sustainability.  Among the other booths displaying in the NPO Village were the Solar Bus (educating on alternative energy sources), HeadCount (registering voters), Musicians for Democracy (educating on progressive political action), and Seaside Naturals (presenting non-toxic family health and cleaning products).

Vibes Bus 2.jpg Thursday was relaxed and low-key, with eager fans filtering in all day before the music began.  All who arrived that day toughed out the extreme humidity and blazing sun—and did so with smiles on their faces.  There was much to induce those smiles.  The shaded campground that immediately greeted everyone who walked through the arches led straight into a giant, Day-Glo painted wooden “Gathering of the Vibes” bus perched on the lush lawn.  Visitors could stand behind the cut-out bus windows and have their pictures taken to look like they were riding in the bus that Animal (from The Muppet Show) was “driving.”  Another huge wooden structure featured a Grateful Dead dancing bear, appearing to be trailed by the bus, which was being pulled by a Strongman in a leopard pelt.  A striped and colorful pyramid, also perched on the lawn, enticed the curious with its surrounding obelisks that bore positive slogans such as “Vibe,” “Irie,” “Passion,” and “Respect,” and featured cartoon images of Bob Marley, Jerry Garcia, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, and Aretha Franklin, among others.

One walk through the Rainbows B-Rushless “Karma Wash” assured that even if you harmed a few ants as you set your camp up for the weekend, there was a way to start over.  It was clear it was going to be a fanciful and fun weekend for the kid in everyone, not that the “real” kids didn’t have their own area—the Wormtown Kids Tent was established in the shade near the entrance to family camping, complete with paint sets, craft areas, and hula hoops a-plenty.  The Teen Scene included a few house bands that stopped by throughout the weekend to give kids mini music lessons and lead them in improvised jam sessions.  One child, approaching a woman wearing an official Vibes t-shirt, asked, “How old do I have to be to play an instrument?”  She said, “As old as you are!”  With wide eyes, he responded, “I have to be nine?”  The look of joy on his face was priceless.

The concert field was really two stages—”Sun” and “Moon”—right next to each other, with a giant turtle banner (the Vibes’ trademark) hanging between them.  It was clear that there would be no time wasted after a set getting the next band onto the adjacent stage.  The weekend was set to be a smooth ride, with the anticipation of days packed with music seamlessly threading together the hours.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Funk stars Groovesect started off the evening, followed on the next stage by Donna Jean and the Tricksters, who played into a windy evening.  Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay remarked that although the sun was going down, it sure was hot up on the stage.  Backed by the great musicianship of the Tricksters and the voice of Wendy Lanter of the band Hope in Time, Godchaux MacKay lent her voice to the Dead classic, “Crazy Fingers,” smiling through the whole thing despite the heat.  A new tune, “Across the Universe,” was debuted, and the band was joined for a few songs by Rob Barraco on keys.  It was a low-key set, no doubt because Godchaux MacKay was saving most of her energy for her appearances on stage with other musicians, which she would do throughout the weekend, accompanying Dark Star Orchestra later that evening.

Dark Star Orchestra was a powerhouse later that night, performing their tribute to the Grateful Dead show that occurred on November 6, 1977, at the Broome County Arena in Binghamton, New York.  Lisa Mackey was joined on stage by Godchaux MacKay at the beginning of the second set for “Samson and Delilah” and “Fire on the Mountain.”  As they forged through “The Music Never Stopped” and the entire crowd chanted, “We forgot about the time,” it was apparent that the Grateful Dead was the reason all were all there in the first place.{mospagebreak}

Friday, August 1, 2008

Wedding.jpg Friday began with the weekend’s emcee, Wavy Gravy, introducing himself as “Hippie icon, flower child, and temple of accumulated error.”  He then “exercised his Graviness” by officiating the wedding of Armand and Kelly Couture before the music got started for the day.  Standing in front of the puja prayer table, where festivalgoers were encouraged to come throughout the weekend and place good thoughts and well-wishes, the couple wore purple-themed homemade patchwork and tie-dyed clothing, and the wedding party all donned red clown noses as they gathered around Wavy for pictures.  Wavy advised to all over the P.A., “You should blow up bubbles, not bombs.”

DBBVibes_IMG_2099_RobChapman_8-1-08.jpg The first act of the day on the main stage was American Babies, with Tom Hamilton’s twangy vocals sounding like Roy Orbison brought into a present day rock band.  Next was New England’s Ryan Montbleau, playing his introspective, soul-revival folk songs on acoustic guitar.  Because the members of Porter Batiste Stoltz (George Porter, Jr., Russell Batiste, Jr., and Brian Stoltz) were stuck in weekend traffic, Montbleau played an extra-long set, and Assembly of Dust’s Reid Genauer was kind enough to fill in for a few quick numbers on his guitar before the New Orleans funk and dub ensemble eventually took the stage.

  The Solar Stage got its start at noon with Turbine, The Grapes, Nate Wilson, and the much-anticipated The Bridge.  This six-man band from Baltimore was one of the more original up-and-coming acts during the weekend, and featured some impressive beat-boxing from mandolin player Kenny Liner.  Guitarist Cris Jacobs then exchanged his guitar for pedal steel as the band performed some blues tunes to assuage the heat of the day.

Back at the main stage, the far-out Zappa Plays Zappa—a hit on the festival circuit this summer—did not disappoint, with Frank’s son, Dweezil, and Ray White thrilling old-school fans and making new ones as they opened with “I’m the Slime,” “City of Tiny Lights,” and “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes.” 

DBBVibes_IMG_2108_RobChapman_8-1-08.jpg What could possibly come between Zappa and the next scheduled act of the evening, Deep Banana Blackout?  Enter the eerie sound of a high-pitched eight-year-old boy’s voice as he wails out the greatest hits of Black Sabbath on his guitar.  Unassuming but quite talented Yuto Miyazawa is a Japanese prodigy, who also covers Clapton and has played with Galactic.  To experience maximum weirdness, be sure to catch this rising star before he hits puberty.

Although they are not currently touring together as a band, Deep Banana Blackout returned to the stage in their hometown Friday night for a rare soul treat that turned the field into a blazing funk disco inferno.  They don’t call lead singer Jen Durkin “Pipes” for nothing—she easily powered out the tunes that got the dense crowd more than warmed up for the night’s main course.

Headliners The Black Crowes were in fine form, performing their hits with precision and introducing some newer songs from their latest album, Warpaint.  Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars now joins the band, as well as two backup female vocalists who added texture to the Crowe’s hard Southern rock ballads.  On what would have been Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s 66th birthday, the Crowes played an endearing tribute to the bearded man with their version of “Cold Rain and Snow,” one of the Dead’s staple covers.  All in all, Friday’s musical vibes were a fitting close to Garcia’s birthday celebration.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Thank goodness Bridgeport, Connecticut, natives Alternate Routes opened the main stage a little before schedule on Saturday morning.  As the sky grew overcast and the winds kicked up around 11:30 a.m., fans and the band took cover.  An impressively long and aggressive thunder and lightning storm struck the festival grounds relentlessly for several hours, postponing all the music on both stages for most of the afternoon.  When the sky lightened around 3:30, music came over the P.A.: the Dead’s “Here Comes Sunshine,” and around 4:20, the New Riders of the Purple Sage took the stage, eclipsing Strangefolk who were, unfortunately, bumped from the lineup because of time constraints.  Subsequently, each act after the New Riders was shortened to 45-minute sets, with the night’s headliner, Phil Lesh and Friends, able to play their complete two-set show.

NRPSVibes_IMG_2287_RobChapman_8-2-08.jpg The New Riders brought the cheer back into the festival with rollicking good time tunes.  Young and old slopped along in the concert field, which had become a huge mud pit.  Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay returned to the stage for the third time in twenty-four hours.  The set included two painters on stage as the band busted out classics like “Deep Elem Blues” and “The Last Time,” before heading into Cajun territory by closing the set with a boisterously happy “Panama Red.”  The sun was blazing at this point, and some young boys in bathing suits had found a way to “surf” on wide, thin boards through the giant puddles that had taken up residency in the middle of the concert field.

There was no time to waste between sets—fans didn’t even need to stop dancing—because the Bill Kreutzmann Trio burst out of the gate with an up-tempo “Eyes of the World.”  “Help on the Way” was followed by a fierce, hard-hitting jam that touched “Slipknot,” but surprisingly emerged into “Bertha.”  The former Grateful Dead drummer is joined in his band by guitarist Scott Murawski and bassist Oteil Burbridge.


Meanwhile, gracing the Solar Stage was the angelic Samantha Stollenwerck, an L.A.-based singer/songwriter whose versatile style and unpredictable song structures resemble—but transcend—pop.  Stollenwerck, 29, played acoustic guitar and was backed by a temporary band consisting of a drummer and bass player.  It was her first time playing at the Vibes, but in her young career she has already shared the stage with Bob Weir, Mark Karan, and Tea Leaf Green.  She looks to play with a larger band in the future.  Look for more from this talented woman who is a welcome feminine breath of fresh air.

TajMahalVibes_IMG_2623_RobChapman_8-1-08.jpg Back at the main stage, one festivalgoer mentioned that the vibe went “From Dead to Phish,” as Mike Gordon took the stage.  Gordon has been quite busy lately, touring the festival circuit and recording new music, much of which he showcased during his set.  All Phish reunion rumors aside, Gordon seems to be at the top of his creative game and appeared quite comfortable on the stage in his own band.  The Taj Mahal Trio followed quickly on the adjacent stage, with the master bringing a dose of humor into his signature brand of world-beat funk-folk.

The muddy concert field was no major deterrent for the crowd as Phil Lesh and Friends took the stage in front of the packed outdoor venue.  The band was joined by Teresa Williams for the opener, “Here Comes Sunshine,” which flowed into “Good Lovin’.”  Later in the set, after an extended intro, “Cumberland Blues” featured a heavy jam that went where few “Cumberland”s have gone recently.  Two crisp mid-set gems, “Dire Wolf” and “Loser” led into the set closer, “Cold Rain and Snow.”

The satisfying first set couldn’t prepare the crowd for the faraway dimensions of the second set, which began with a rockin’—rockin’—”Scarlett Begonias” that bled into “Watchtower,” followed by “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.”  Jackie Greene’s vocals broke more than a few hearts on “Wharf Rat.”  With all of these songs so new to his personal repertoire, he brings a fresh voice to them that is much appreciated by many in attendance who may have heard these songs performed hundreds of times.  “Wharf Rat” led into Steve Molitz synthesizer frenzy as the band cranked out the Particle tune “Elevator,” which showcased the band’s prowess in multiple genres, with Greene and Campbell trading precise licks and appearing to be having a blast.  Out of “Elevator” emerged Phil’s bass, pumping out the familiar chords to “The Eleven.”  Williams again joined the band for the entire arena’s sing-along of “I Know You Rider” with Greene moving into the center of the stage to jam once more with Campbell.  Drummer John Molo raised his hands in the air to get the audience clapping along with “Not Fade Away” before the band closed the set with a few more bars of the “Scarlet” jam that had started it.  They encored with “Box of Rain.”

Sunday, August 3, 2008

World Peace Prayer 2.jpg With the humidity now gone from the air, the sun in the early sky shone on the main concert field where the World Peace Prayer was held at 10:30.  The small but earnest gathering waved the flags of each country in the world as a representative of the World Peace Prayer Society recited the names of the countries, by region, and all chanted in unison: “May Peace Prevail on Earth.”

 The hallelujahs continued when the Organically Grown Gospel Choir took the stage, led by fiery and soulful lead singer Andrew Gromiller.  Jen Durkin joined, singing, “When Jesus shows his smiling face, there’s sunshine in my soul.”  While Gromiller’s band usually involves fewer people, the souped-up festival version included fourteen musicians and singers, with a guitar, bass, drums, organ, both a horn and a percussion section, and several backup singers.  Gromiller’s ten-year-old son, Zion, played congas.  Gromiller got his start singing in soul bands and eventually began playing bass when he filled in for some missing musicians.  “It was a crazy endeavor,” he says, recalling the time he purchased a Hammond B3 organ and began playing in front of people.  He cites his influences in James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison, and Little Milton.

Jackie Greene returned to the stage for a set with his own band, consisting of Jeremy Plog, Nathan Dale, and Uncle Bruce Spencer.  The set included mostly original songs but featured a slowed-down, jazzy version of “New Speedway Boogie” and a Donna Jean appearance on “Sugaree.”

Vibes veteran Sam Bush, a “wild bluegrass stepchild,” played an extra-long set before the Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Soul Stew Revival rocked the crowd.  By this time, the crowd had dwindled because of an arrangement with the City of Bridgeport that all festivalgoers had to be off the site after the last act of the evening.  But that didn’t dampen the band’s sound as they ended their set with a goosebump-raising version of “Hey Jude.”

UmphreesVibes_IMG_3172_RobChapman_8-3-08.jpg Jam band leaders Umphrey’s McGee charged on soon after, with unpredictable, metal-tinged jams that surprised and delighted the audience that tried to anticipate every tempo and key change.  Umphrey’s went out like gang busters; this was the last stop on their summer tour and they are looking forward to a well-deserved rest.

Capping off the weekend was the Neville Brothers, who finished the festival in style.  Smooth and flawless, Charles, Aaron, Art, and Cyril had old and young alike grooving to such classics as “Everybody Plays the Fool,” “Tell It Like It Is” and a jazz sax instrumental of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”  As the sun set on Seaside Park’s Gathering of the Vibes festival 2008, the Nevilles led an “Aiko, Aiko” sing-along, ending with a reggae-tinged medley of “Amazing Grace/One Love/People Get Ready.”  They called out, “Joy to the world and peace to the planet”—a fitting end to another successful gathering of the Vibe Tribe.