Reviews > Shows
Life is good Festival Revisited
This weekend the Life is good Festival returns to Prowse Farm in Canton, MA. Here is a review of last year’s event…
In a sleepy suburb, Canton, about 20 minutes by car or commuter rail south of Boston, Massachusetts, the people behind the Life is good clothing company held the first full music incarnation, of their summer benefit festival. Located at the foot of Blue Hill, a hiking and skiing site, and on the field of Prowse Farm, the festival continued Life is good’s fundraising efforts for kids in need, as 100 % of proceeds went to their kids foundation. It also built on last year’s festival and concerts on the Common in downtown Boston, via a two-day, three-stage music extravaganza that featured two main stages and a kids’ stage, as well as a rock climbing wall, an obstacle course for dogs, Red Sox-themed autograph sessions, and inflatable bouncing houses. The family-friendly element was apparent as soon as I queued up Saturday morning for the shuttle bus to the festival grounds from Route 128/University Park MBTA commuter rail and Amtrak station, in nearby Westwood: strollers and moms and dads carrying little ones, then big yellow school buses rolling up to transport us the grounds.
As for the music, the lineup boasted serious national, and international, names—Ben Harper and Jason Mraz (headliners for day one and two, respectively), Corinne Bailey Rae, Guster, Ziggy Marley, and Mavis Staples—homegrown groups like Will Dailey and the Rivals, Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the True Loves, and strong emerging indie acts such as Brett Dennen, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and Dr. Dog. There were also several acts that boasted a large number of personnel, sprawling tunes, and, often, a culturally diverse sound, such as Ozomatli, Galactic, Toubab Krewe, and the aforementioned Eli Reed and His True Loves. Here are some highlights caught on the various stages:
On the Good Vibes Stage, the first performers of each of the two days were those who had won a slot through Sonicbids. At 11:45 A.M. on Saturday, the first act of the festival, local singer/songwriter Chris Phillips, took to the stage. His material was straight-ahead blues-rock, supported by his backing band of two guitarists, a drummer, a keyboardist, a bassist, and, later, a female backing vocalist (Phillips later thanked the group, saying he had put them together just in the last few weeks). The music at times sounded like Hootie and the Blowfish or the Steve Miller Band, including a tune called “Life Is Good,” which Phillips explained he wrote four years ago, but which he’d like to say he penned specifically for this gig. After another warm-hearted song, containing the lyrics “You better smile / we’re only here for a little while,” he was joined by a violinist who added a country twang to the last few selections.
Next up, on the Life is good mainstage, the eight-piece Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the True Loves set up shop, with the True Loves (the backing band, featuring a horn section) playing first, to introduce singer/guitarist/frontman Reed. He entered singing, to the Loves’ soul revival sound and after an intro from the keyboardist/ “master of ceremonies.” His delivery was rapid and James Brown-inspired on the opener, “The Satisfier,” which seemed to be a long-lost track from the Godfather himself. Reed, along with his True Loves, was amazingly energetic and is a real performer, vocalizing and nearly yelling at frequent intervals, particularly on the title track to their new album Come and Get It. At one point, the Brookline, Massachusetts native noted that he “went hiking here when I was like six years old,” referring to the nearby, radio-tower-topped Blue Hill. His encore featured the fast-rhythmed soul clap, which he taught to a crowd that he was fast bringing to life at around 12:45 P.M. as the first artist of the festival on the Life is good stage.
Later, on the mainstage, the gospel icon Mavis Staples, provided a stirring set that proved she hasn’t lost a step. Audience members young and old, about half of them still sitting down on blankets and not yet too tightly packed in, were getting into her music, from the breathtaking a cappella version of the spiritual “I Am His and He Is Mine,” and a cover of the John Fogerty, Civil Rights-era number “Wrote A Song for Everyone,” to the grooving gospel and Staple Singers classic “Creep Along Moses.” Staples also presented her interpretation of the Band’s “The Weight,” a song often done by her family, digging into the verses with color and a gravely rock gravitas. With thick blues-rock licks on Rick Holmstrom’s guitar, sweet soul from her backup singers—including sister Yvonne—, and a bunch of new and newly-imagined tunes off her new album produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, she gracefully, yet powerfully strode through her set. An especially moving moment was when Staples spoke “My mind is made up and I’m not goin’ to turn around,” lyrics to the Singers’ “Freedom Highway,” and noted that it was one of the first songs her family wrote for the Civil Rights movement. Then, she stated she’s still on that road and will be “till Dr. King’s dream is realized.” Staples and company finished up with “I Belong to the Band” and “I’ll Take You There.” Before a rhythmic outro on that last song, she reminded the crowd “The Staple Singers have been takin’ you there for 60 years. We ain’t tired yet.” Then, this legend of arguably the first family of gospel, added with a chuckle, “No you ain’t seen the last of me.”
Back on the smaller Good Vibes Stage, the mid-afternoon sun was flooding the stage and dust-bowl-like field where the standing audience packed in, perfect for the surfy, chilled-out, tropical Americana of southern California’s Donovan Frankenreiter. Featuring songs that feel like those that might be played at a beach party, around a campfire, this sometime professional surfer good-vibed his way through a nine-song set with a four-piece backing band; he exhibited a delicacy of delivery and playing on songs such as the soul-tinged “Life, Love, and Laughter,” the soft, sweet “Glow” (the title track off his new album), and the trumpet-infused “Headin’ Home,” from his 2004 self-titled debut album. Towards the end of his set, he introduced “an oldie,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl,” Frankenreiter’s version being a slow-burning crowd-pleaser that fit well with his own songbook. For the last song, “It Don’t Matter,” he received help with the refrain—“If it don’t matter to you / It don’t matter to me”—from a little girl in the crowd, about six, who spoke-sung it a few times, just inverting the “you” and “me” the first time. She garnered a big hand from the gathered after having been urged on by the singer/songwriter amidst the sun-drenched spectators.
Soon after, drifting over from the mainstage, was Ozomatli’s hip-rock-en-español, rap and rock vocals interchanging over horns and funky guitars; an energetic stage show to say the least.
Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog, on the Good Vibes stage, purveyed indie-rock punch that spilled out into heavy jams, featured impressive three-part harmonies, and showcased this quintet’s knack for bopping, buoyant, yet well-orchestrated music. All this was working on “Stranger,” something like Squeeze’s “Tempted” on steroids, currently making waves on alternative radio, and sung by bassist Toby Leaman (Leaman shares lead vocal duties in the band with lead guitarist Scott McMicken). The group ended, with Life is good beach balls flying around the audience and American Sign Language interpreters expressively signing, on “The Rabbit, The Bat, and the Reindeer.” The song, from their 2008 full-length Fate, was prefaced by Leaman saying to the crowd “This song is not for you. It’s for people I don’t like,” then launching into the first line “I don’t want a thing to do with your kind.” Overall, theirs was one of the tighter, more rousing performances of the festival.
On the mainstage, which was directly across the main festival field from the smaller stage, Ziggy Marley and his band got ready to bring peace and love vibes to the masses at around 5:45 P.M. One of the more international—and popular—artists at the festival, Ziggy mostly played songs from his 2006 solo effort Love is My Religion, and also included “This Train,” a re-working of his dad’s tune as well as a track from his most recent (2009), kids-geared record, Family Time. That tune, which is sung with Willie Nelson on the album, features some now-autobiographical lyrics about a musical childhood and a clever, treble guitar lick that mirrors the newly-added, child-centric “choo-choo-choo” vocal. A couple of times between songs, Marley spoke a line from the one to follow, such as “A lifetime isn’t enough to live” before “Lifetime” and “Love is a melody that plays through eternity, making sweet songs all night long,” before “Make Some Music.” In addition, he threw in “Stand Up For Your Rights” and “Is This Love”- during the first tune he vocalized reggae-style back and forth with the audience and, on the second, sans guitar, he changed a lyric to be “We’ll share the same room /Rastafari provide the bread.” Both were, as to be expected, received with significant appreciation and ardor.
As night was falling, the recently buzzed-about, hard-rockin’ dynamo that is Grace Potter and the Nocturnals took to the Good Vibes Stage. With a plush tiger-doll head on top of an amp, matched later by a tiger-style cover for the bottom of a large sitar played by an additional musician, the band mostly blistered through an eleven-song set. Standout songs included the anthemic, catchy “Tiny Light,” featuring Potter on keyboard and an extended, Doors-ish outro that transitioned to the slow, heart-breaking “Apologies”; an a cappella version of the gospel-ish hymn “Down by the Water,” the fast-paced “Medicine,” and the sassy “Paris (Ooh La La).”
Headlining the first day, on the larger Life is good stage, was Ben Harper and the Relentless7. The hour-and-a-half closing show saw Harper making extensive use of his lap steel guitar and singing tunes from his studio album with the Relentless7, his previous solo full-lengths, and his upcoming disc with the Relentless7, Give Till It’s Gone. Roots rock, such as “Amen Omen” and “Diamonds on the Inside,” both tracks on 2003’s Diamonds on the Inside, were interspersed with long instrumental sections like that around “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart).” Picking up an acoustic guitar towards the end of the set, with the Prowse Farm grounds in near darkness except for the luminescence of the stage, Harper played “Feel Love” off his next album.
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