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The day begins early on Saturday, when the WERS crew rolls into the Life Is Good parking lot, September 24th in the year 2011. The festival ground is quiet and empty in the overcast morning, the weather is warm, and the air is thick with humidity and expectation as time ticks away towards the beginning of LIG fest 2011.
Crossing the empty space of the Prowse Farm, I look down at the press bracelet on my hand, which has the festival’s motto “Good Vibes Save Lives” printed on its white fabric. LIG throws the festival every year to benefit the Life Is Good Playmakers, an organization that attempts to heal childhood trauma with good times. It is in this spirit that they throw this festival, replete with a roster of Folk, Jam-band, R&B and Country acts that would make your average WERS listener shriek with glee like a 14 year-old at a Beatles show in 1963.
I get to the stage around half past one for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans, Louisiana. The boys hardly talk, but they don’t need to. They launch right into a repertoire of stomping rhythm and blues numbers that leave the festival audience swaying and bouncing in time to the beat. By the end, everyone is all warmed up for the coming afternoon.
At quarter past four, The Hold Steady take to the stage and proceed to prove that their early afternoon slot doesn’t mean they aren’t the best band playing the festival. They play all the hits, and the crowd rocks out with them, frontman Craig Finn mugging to the crowd as they sing the most memorable choruses. Since Franz Nicolay left the band a few years ago, they’ve evolved into an all-guitar classic rock band, and the transition is natural. The set engages an audience of both young children and aging hippies. I spot a boy of maybe seven sitting on his father’s shoulders, eyes wide at the spectacle.
After the most heavy hitting act, the most appropriate band for the festival, Michael Franti & Spearhead are on. I sit by the green pickup truck and compile my notes so far, foot bouncing absently to the music. Franti & Spearhead are all about good times, I decide, their very loose and upbeat sound a reflection of Life Is Good Fest’s philosophy.
Later on Saturday Ingrid Michaelson takes the Good Vibes Stage. Onstage, she is all at once charming and goofy, sultry and approachable. I recline by the pond as she plays, letting her very silly banter and gorgeous arrangements wash over me in the setting sun. It is a near perfect end to the day as the humidity breaks and the sun goes down. I walk through the festival grounds as the sun dims and large glowing orbs are erected along the center of the Prowse Farms to light the way, and I feel an overwhelming sense of peace as the Avett Brothers take to the stage and play a few songs.
When the day begins on Sunday, I sit on a blanket in front of the main stage waiting for Zee Avi, my copy of Mystery Train by Greil Marcus in hand. I take off my shoes and fold my legs beneath my body, sitting in a meditative pose for the length of her set. The Malaysian songwriter is particularly skillful for such an early daytime slot. She lets her arrangements dance lightly over the respectable little crowd that forms during the set, teasing us briefly by transitioning into “Pumped Up Kicks” at the end of one song.
Jenny Dee and the Deelinquents are next, doing the good lord’s work with romping soul revival tunes. Though the music itself was a little uninspired, they sure can sing, and it serves as a good warm up into a really talented musician, Maceo Parker. The saxophonist is introduced as “the funkiest saxman in the world” which I believe is a title that could be easily claimed by any number of saxmen or even saxwomen. Never the less, the spirit of the gesture is still felt and no less true.
When Brandi Carlile hits the Main Stage in the mid-afternoon, I’m faced with my first ever straight up country-pop act. After an intro, she pays homage to the only country man I ever loved, Johnny Cash, with covers of “Jackson” and “Folsom Prison.” A few members of the Boston Pops trot out to play with her on a few songs.
By now the festival has fallen victim to the disease that afflicts all heavily regimented events, and has fallen out of time with the schedule. This leads to some confusion as I miss half of Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s set while waiting for Levon Helm to take the Main Stage. From what I heard in my place on the far side of the field though, sounds like a nice a young fellow.
Then a man who has essentially made today and all its musicians possible takes the stage. Levon Helm shuffled out, all of 71 years old and looking fragile as a china doll. But when he took his seat at the drum kit, a bright smile suddenly lit his aged face and he and The Levon Helm Band launched into what could be honestly called one of the greatest sets I’ve ever seen. The way the band works together and their seamless incorporation of members of the Boston Pops gave a weight to the performance that could not be denied. The crowd was overjoyed to be in his presence, to be experiencing a man who’s work helped define a generation.
The last song of his set solidified the awesomeness of the performance when Sunday night headliner Ray LaMontagne stepped up to the mic to sing vocals on “Tears of Rage” and the seminal rock track “The Weight.” The crowd went crazy when Helm himself broke his silence at the drum kit and sang his signature verse with mention of his childhood friend “Young Anna Lee”. To cap it all, he tossed his sticks to a four year-old girl in the front row as he exited the stage.
High off the spectacle I’d just witnessed, I wandered back in a daze to the WERS tent and sat down, took in a breath, and relaxed.