BRIDGEPORT — In 1996, the Gathering of the Vibes was originally conceived as a one-off tribute concert to memorialize fallen Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia. But much like the members of that seminal American rock and roll outfit, the Vibes has continued, growing into a destination festival that for the past few years, has taken up residence in Bridgeport’s beautiful Seaside Park.
And while the songs and spirit of the Dead were never far off the radar for the musicians, vendors and attendees, this year was also a big year for Mick Jagger, who turned 70 last weekend and was the subject of numerous musical tributes by the many bands that graced the festival’s three stages at any point during the July 25-28 presentation.
Another influential rocker, J.J. Cale, was on the minds of many musicians as news of his passing on July 26 spread throughout the vibes community. Grace Potter, who was appearing with her band The Nocturnals, dedicated her hit “Stars” to Cale, whose name also pops up in another one of her tunes, “Tooth Brush and My Table.”
Opening day at the Vibes on Thursday, July 25, dawned amid unseasonably cold temperatures with a possibility of rain, which eventually hit the venue in time for the main stage closer, Dark Star Orchestra. That internationally known Dead tribute act reproduced, song for song, a complete show the Dead played on September 25, 1976, including popular favorites like “Cassidy,” “Sugaree,” “Dancing in The Street” and “Sugar Magnolia.”
Leading up to DSO, festival openers Wild Adriatic and Ryan Montbleau attracted a respectable and responsive cluster of fans from among the campers and early birds who ventured out to the main stage viewing field. Montbleau, a Vibes regular, played a mixed bag from his catalog, tossing in a sizzling cover of The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another.”
Heading into the early, chilly Thursday evening, Original Strangefolk warmed the crowd with their own brand of acoustic folk rock before welcoming “Grateful Dead Hour” host David Ganz, who is no slouch when it comes to guitar and vocals. That pairing resulted in the first Dead cover of the festival, a solid “Shakedown Street,” which drove the ever growing fans into a frenzy of bopping and dancing.
Friday Heats Up
On Friday, Galactic welcomed singer David Shaw from the Revivalists for much of their set. Shaw had some success urging everyone, including the girls, to take their shirts off as the band celebrated Jagger’s birthday with a smoking take on “Gimme Shelter.”
Not to be outdone, the Tedeschi Trucks Band replaced Galactic’s smoke with some real fire courtesy of Derek Trucks’ intense slide guitar and wife Susan Tedeschi’s smoldering vocals. Opening with “Misunderstood,” the band mixed in a good dose of new material from the soon-to-be-released Made Up Mind, including a slow and soulful “It’s So Heavy.”
“Midnight in Harlem” and Tedeschi’s rendition of “Angel From Montgomery” rolled out as the sun dipped low in the sky, further cooling down the audience ahead of the first of two nights with Phil Lesh and Friends.
Lesh, with backing players including John Scofield, John Medeski, Joe Russo and Furthur’s John Kadlecik, showcased some of what the Dead was famous for back in the day: psychedelic rock and long, seemingly aimless jams.
Set opener “Scarlet Begonias” was a grand slam as the temporarily dormant Vibes fans erupted into a sea of cheering, spinning, bouncing tie-dye. Lesh looked fit and happy, plucking away on his six-string bass as Scofield and Kadlecik traded incendiary solos.
The second set on Friday brought Lesh and Friends back to the earliest stage of the Grateful Dead catalog, as they returned with “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” into “Viola Lee Blues,” and “Saint Stephen.”
As a bright half moon rose above the Ferris wheel at Seaside Park, Lesh dealt out a rocking version of “Shakedown Street,” before acknowledging that heavenly body with Garcia’s plaintive ballad, “Standing On The Moon,” and then closing the show with “Ripple.”
Big Crowds Saturday
Saturday brought the greatest crowds of the weekend, who arrived early with the promise of even better weather, cloudless skies and temps into the high 80s. The lineup for Saturday was equally refreshing with Lukas Nelson kicking things off bright, early and loud.
The Funky Meters reminded the Vibes crowd where their particular style of musical gumbo comes from, laying down 70 minutes of solid New Orleans groove. Then The Roots took control, mesmerizing the fans with Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson mashing up several genres to achieve their own brand of jazzy hip-hop on tunes including “The Next Movement.”
Grace Potter made a return to the Vibes trading her micro mini skirt for something like a Princess Leia robe, but instead of a light saber, she was packing a Gibson Flying-V and she was not afraid to use it.
Potter and her band rocked Seaside Park for most of their set, mixing rejuvenated classics like “Nothing But The Water,” with newcomers like “Paris,” “Medicine,” and the emotional “Stars,” dedicated to Cale.
Potter also welcomed Warren Haynes, who was warming up for the next set, to sit in on Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” before wrapping with one of Cale’s most memorable hits, “Cocaine.”
Haynes returned with Gov’t Mule after a short set change, pulling a few samples from his upcoming project, Shout!, and mixing them with rocking blues, a clever cover of The Beatles “Love Me Do,” and his own anthem, “Soulshine.”
Lesh’s Saturday follow-up opened with a rollicking “Cumberland Blues,” and kept the mood uptempo with “China Cat Sunflower,” and an almost unwieldy “Cold Rain and Snow.” The latter number saw some of the finest Scofield-Kadlecik interplay of the weekend, with each guitarist layering new licks into the other’s groove.
Set two brought a Vibes treat as Lesh welcomed sax man extraordinaire Bill Evans to the stage. Evans, who was the Vibes first ever artist-in-residence, had previously played with TTD and Gov’t Mule, and he was slated to play with Blues Traveler on Sunday.
An extended jam through “He’s Gone” brought back more memories of Garcia, with Kadlecik’s precise replication of the late musician’s Mutron-infused noodling and soaring guitar solos. Then, the Deadheads got what they were waiting for, as the band shifted almost imperceptibly into “Dark Star.”
As the evening drew to a close, Lesh, a liver transplant survivor, made his appeal for fans to become organ donors before leaving the crowd with “A Box of Rain.”
Sunday Surprise From Sandy Hook
The more abbreviated Sunday Vibes set opened with the die-hard Connecticut-based jam band Max Creek, who paid tribute to J.J. Cale with an extended “After Midnight.” For that number Creek welcomed guest guitarist Mark Barden of Sandy Hook, who lost his son Daniel on 12/14.
Blues Traveler followed with a buzzsaw set of rockers including crowd favorites “But Anyway,” “Run Around,” and a jamming cover of ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” The influx of attendees to the field may have gotten hooked in by John Popper and company, but John Butler kept them in line with his own special brand of hard-edged acoustic rock.
Butler’s “Long Way Down” was a crowd favorite, and he brought out his son John Lee to “help” drummer Nicky Bomba wrap up the set with “Zebra.”
The Black Crowes closed out the Vibes main stage Sunday in loud and cantankerous fashion, holding nothing back in a steamy, jam-packed set that was heavy on the hits. “Twice as Hard,” “Soul Singing,” “Remedy,” and their affecting ballad “She Talks To Angels,” all had the crowd singing along.
And for the folks who were not too familiar with the repertoire, they threw in yet another Mick Jagger tribute with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and a “Feelin’ Alright” chaser that had everyone from toddlers to grandparents shaking their hips and tapping their feet.