10 Good Things About Life is good Festival 2011

Matthew Shelter on September 27, 2011

Craig Finn, The Hold Steady

Life is good, the socially-conscious New England-based apparel company, staged their second annual “Life Is good Festival” on the grounds of the Prowse Farm in Canton, Massachusetts over the weekend of Sept. 24th and 25th. The festival raised more than $1 million for the company’s charitable arm, dedicated to helping kids facing life-threatening challenges. Here, in no particular order, are 10 Good Things about the 2011 Life is good Festival:

1. Barefoot Truth – This young indie band out of Connecticut was the last act to sign up for the festival, thereby snagging the coveted 12 noon opening slot on Saturday, a time when most respectable rock acts are still in bed, and half the festival crowd had yet to arrive. The band’s lead singer and drummer Will Evans noted the fact that noon was way early for these guys to be out and about. But never mind, nothing a pair of dark shades couldn’t solve. Unfurling a distinctive roots-rock sound they’ve made their own – akin to Dispatch, but not quite – BFT showed why they are quietly building a devoted following playing small clubs, bars and colleges throughout the Northeast and beyond. The acts to follow would show this quintet they still have a couple of levels to go before they hit the big time. But they’re fun to watch, they’re paying their dues.

2. Dwight & Nicole – One of the benefits of festivals is they expose you to bands you might not come across on your own. The first of these, for me, was Dwight & Nicole, the genre-bending five-piece band fronted by Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson. Take R&B, soul, blues and jazz, mix in razor-sharp rock guitar (Dwight), a soulful, joyful, foot-stomping, happy-to-be-alive stage energy (Nicole), heat to boiling, and watch your face melt. That’s Dwight & Nicole. Catch them in a dark, smoky club where the sweat’s dripping off the ceiling. Or at an outdoor festival, for that matter. They’ll captivate you either way.

3. The Hold Steady – Another band with electrifying, in-your-face stage presence, in the form of tightly-wound front man Craig Finn. The Hold Steady reportedly was born eight years or so ago after Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler watched The Last Waltz (this film may be to the indie rock movement what All The President’s Men was to journalism 20 or 30 years ago). The Hold Steady, it should be noted, have little in common with The Band, which is fine. Finn’s stage act calls to mind something a little closer to original issue Elvis Costello or other neo-punk artists like Jim Carroll. He might sing a verse, then push the microphone away and mouth the verse again to himself, like some paranoid schizophrenic who can’t believe the singer just said what he said. The effect is great and fits their songs, which are mostly dense stories. On stage, the band comes right at you, threatening to break through the invisible plane between performer and audience, grab you by the lapels (should you be wearing any), and shake you and slap you, something, anything to get you to understand the full weight of the human condition.

4. Michael Franti and Spearhead – This band was a perfect match for this festival, not only because Franti and Spearhead are a great live act, but because Franti’s social consciousness fits right in with the prevailing vibe of Life is good. Franti was like a pied piper of funk on Saturday afternoon, high-stepping barefoot back and forth across the stage, until the stage was no longer enough to contain him and he plunged into the crowd. Franti has not worn shoes since the year 2000 – not sure you can get more Life is good than that. And guitarist sidekick Jay Bowman had his best Joe Strummer look going.

5. The Avett Brothers – Saturday night headliners The Avett Brothers blew me away. I had heard the buzz about their live shows, but partly because their most recent album – 2009’s I And Love And You – was more of a mid-tempo affair, I wasn’t expecting the high-energy blast with which they took the stage as the final act of the festival’s first night. Critics have struggled to nail the band’s sound, and I probably won’t do much better, but what came to mind watching their 18-song set was some amalgam of The Band, The Beatles and a punk group of your choosing. Not ingredients that typically get stirred in the same pot, but that’s the beauty of what they’ve created – it’s not like anything else. From opener “Go To Sleep” (hint: it’s not a lullaby) to closer “I And Love And You,” the band burned through an incendiary set where even the ballads sounded as if they might want to pick a fight with you.

Ray LaMontagne

6. Cover Songs – The festival environment seems to make bands more inclined to toss a cover or two into their set list – or maybe it’s the fact that seeing a dozen or more bands over a weekend exposes you to a lot of set lists. Either way, there were some great covers performed over the two days and nights of Life is good: Martin Sexton, just off the plane from Europe, scatting “The Star-Spangled Banner” (cover of an old Francis Scott Key tune) to open his set, and closing with a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace” ; The Avett Brothers covering Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” in their encore; Brandi Carlile and her underrated band burning, I mean burning, through a version of the Johnny Cash classic “Folsom Prison Blues” ; Robert Randolph & The Family Band reinterpreting “Purple Haze” ; The Levon Helm Band covering the Dead’s “Attics of My Life” ; Ray LaMontagne covering Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and later, The Byrd’s “Blue Canadian Rockies.”

7. Ray LaMontagne with The Levon Helm Band – Ray LaMontagne joined The Levon Helm Band for it’s final two songs: “Tears of Rage” and “The Weight.” I sometimes find live performances of uber-classics like “The Weight” to be somehow less than – the performance can never live up to one’s memory of the song. But this was not one of those times. Walking through the crowd while this song was being performed – with Ray LaMontagne’s aching, weary voice a perfect meld for the lyrics penned some 40 odd years ago – was close to transcendent; everyone was singing along – not in an arm-waving, festival kind of sing-along, but just whatever they were doing, sitting on a blanket, buying a beer, throwing a Frisbee, they were all singing the same tune. Dad, was this what the 60’s were like?

8. The Boston Pops – Musicians from the legendary orchestra joined Brandi Carlile and The Levon Helm Band for several songs in each of their sets. Under guest conductor Daniel Bernard Roumain, who was clad in jeans and a casual shirt, the group backed Carlile (who professed to being intimidated at sharing the stage with them) on her piano ballad “Before It Breaks” and, later, on “The Story.” They came back to join Helm and company on “Love Played,” “Tears of Rage” and “The Weight.”

9. Ray LaMontagne – Ray LaMontagne’s set to close the festival on Sunday night was a gem. The soft-spoken and intensely shy LaMontagne even managed to crack a half-smile as he was tuning up when an overly boisterous fan shattered the church-like silence by shouting, “We love you, Ray! We don’t deserve you!” Um, yeah, thanks pal – Ray LaMontagne is exactly the right artist to shout at when he’s getting ready to play. Maybe shine a bright light in his eyes too, so he knows we really love him. But the good karma of the festival carried LaMontagne past such distractions. Highlights of his 15-song set included “Beg Steal or Borrow,” “Hold You In My Arms,” “Trouble,” “Jolene,” and the aforementioned “Blue Canadian Rockies.” LaMontagne introduced the last of these by noting that, "There was a record that came out in 1968 that had a profound effect on me when I heard it for the first time. It was a record by The Byrds, called Sweetheart of the Rodeo. " Most impressive of all were the numbers that let LaMontagne and his excellent backing band, the Pariah Dogs, open the throttle a little bit – as on “Repo Man,” off of last year’s God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, and a lesser-known track, “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame),” off the 2008 album Gossip in the Grain. The latter of these closed the set (pre-encore), and was a barn-burner.

10. The Festival Organizers – Hats off to the Life is good team, for this was a very well-organized, well-run festival. I did not attend the inaugural event last year, so do not know how much accumulated wisdom they gained from last year to this. But the organizers went to great lengths to make the festival a fan-friendly – and family-friendly – environment, and the good vibes were contagious. They even succeeded in altering the weather, which as close as 12 hours before the gates were to open was forecast to be 48 hours of steady rain, but in reality turned into a sunny, balmy Indian-summer weekend.