Floating Through The Fairgrounds: 2018 Levitate Music & Arts Festival – Review & Photos

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Words & Images by: Andrew Bruss

Levitate Music & Arts Festival :: 07.07-08.18
Marshfield Fairgrounds :: Marshfield, MA

The sixth incarnation of the Levitate Music & Arts Festival was an impressive accomplishment that ignored the current music festival Zeitgeist and delivered a much-needed experience paying homage to the roots of modern American music festivals, rather than the homogeneity of its present state.

The event was launched out of a surf shop on the Bay State’s South Shore that was looking to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The Original Wailers headlined that first event on a small chunk of the Marshfield Fairgrounds. In the years to come, the festival gradually began utilizing more and more of the grounds as the crowds continued to grow. After making a major splash in 2016 thanks to a headlining set by Tedeschi Trucks Band, Levitate grew to a two-day event for the first time in 2017. Anyone who has watched the trajectory of Levitate could tell after last year that it was going to be making a bigger bang this summer and accomplished that by booking none other than Trey Anastasio of Phish.

The presence of Big Red atop the bill made sense for too many reasons to list but if the first Bonnaroo in 2002 was the birth of the modern American music festival than Phish’s three-day events in the 1990s like Clifford Ball and The Great Went were the R&D lab. Not only did Anastasio play a big part in the development of the festival circuit, but some of the bands on the Levitate lineup grew up listening to Phish and going to their shows. It’s not a coincidence that numerous acts that played throughout the weekend had custom made guitars crafted to look and sound like Anastasio’s hollow-bodied, archtop Languedoc. Anastasio’s iconic tone has done for sustain what Jimi Hendrix’s did for fuzz and all weekend long I heard guitarists trying to make those notes ring.

Contemporary jam acts like Twiddle, Spafford, Turkuaz and Greensky Bluegrass were on the bill and a heavy reggae presence was felt thanks to the inclusion of Stephen Marley, Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid and Xavier Rudd. Modern folk rockers The Head And The Heart were second on the bill to Anastasio and although they closed out the main stage on Sunday evening, Trey was the only artist whose set was really treated like that of a headliner. While he played unopposed, The Head And The Heart competed against a Superjam hosted by Twiddle’s Mihali Savoulidis that featured local players as well as members of the Trey Anastasio Band, Dopapod, Turkuaz and Greensky. Although Mihali’s jam was on the smallest of three stages, the crowd rivaled that of The Head And The Heart. Twiddle are Levitate veterans and giving the keys to Savoulidis to close up shop was a nod to the fact that they’ve become a big part of the community.

Ripe was a major highlight of the first day of the weekend. The seven-piece funk ensemble sounds like a less technically proficient version of The Motet but with more of a party vibe. A cover of “Lola” by The Kinks made for a proper highlight and the ensuing chorus of audience members helped the crowd get their mind off the heat and into the groove. Frontman Robbie Wulfsohn was one of the most dynamic performers of the weekend and they definitely made fans out of the concert goers camped out at the main stage to see Slightly Stoopid followed by Trey.

Robert Randolph is as charismatic a performer as they come, but his set started off with a few technical problems he seemed to have a hard time shaking. Booking him on the smallest of three stages wasn’t the smoothest of moves and out of the gate, he broke a string on his slide guitar. Feedback was an issue throughout the set and although he powered through, shining brightest on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” folks who’ve seen him before could tell the sound issues were preventing him from putting on the kind of performance fans have come to expect.

Everyone was sure to have their own personal highlights but the big story of the first day was Trey Anastasio and no one and nothing else comes close. The Phish frontman has a status that’s beyond iconic. A mobile economy essentially follows him around the country and the fandom embedded within the ranks of the other performers made his set a game-changer unlike any Levitate had ever hosted.

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While keyboardist Ray Paczkowski was being treated for a brain tumor, the Trey Anastasio Band was down a longtime member and holding down the fort as the Trey Anastasio Trio. Thankfully, Paczkowski is back in good health and was able to join his band mates at Levitate for a performance by Classic TAB.

The bulk of the set consisted of Phish and TAB classics ranging from sing-alongs like “Farmhouse” and “Bug” to improvisational vehicles like “First Tube” and a take on “Sand” that was the best part of the performance. Anastasio encored with a pair of acoustic Phish songs before closing things out with “Push On ‘Til the Day,” a TAB staple that’s even familiar to the Phish fans who aren’t well versed in Anastasio’s solo material.

Anastasio’s vocals were sloppy. At certain points, his attempts to alter the lyrical rhythm came off as awkward and on “Farmhouse” he simply left out lyrics without altering the instrumental arrangement those missing lyrics would accompany. Where he seemed uninterested in singing, his guitar playing was locked into the pocket all night and grew fiercer as the set went on. Phish is an act much bigger than Trey, and in many ways, bigger than the members themselves, and keeping egos in check means sharing the spotlight. That said, this wasn’t Phish and Trey had no problem dominating the improvisational component of the show all night long. He came out from behind the mic to interact with the audience and was all smiles from the get-go. It was clear he really enjoys the opportunity TAB provides for unrestrained lead work that unapologetically makes the performance all about him.

Stephen Marley took on the Main Stage Sunday afternoon with a set featuring his own material as well as that of his late father, Bob Marley. Hearing 15,000 people singing “Positive Vibrations” under the midday sun was a heartwarming experience that made me grateful to be a part of the moment. If anyone in that crowd didn’t feel the need to sing, dance or smile, then something was wrong with their soul.

In addition to their main stage set, The Head And The Heart played an acoustic set in the VIP area while attendees slurped down oysters. Island Creek Oysters are raised on a farm minutes from the Marshfield fairground and are served in all the best seafood joints in the Boston area. They were on site in the VIP tent shucking approximately 4,000 oysters a day for the folks who sprang for the pricier ticket package. The inclusion of Island Creek is one of many ways Levitate has successfully infused local culture into an event that saw attendees coming from far and near.

Their roots were also honored during a performance by Stick Figure, a reggae rock act from the South Shore who has played at Levitate every year. Folks on the outside looking in probably aren’t too familiar with Stick Figure but all weekend long, you couldn’t walk five feet in any direction without bumping into someone wearing one of their shirts.

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In addition to the music, the logistics were incredibly fluid. Bathroom lines weren’t too long, the food options were both local and more varied than previous years, there were plenty of water refill stations and it was never hard to find a shady tree to recharge under.

The sun was harsh and all weekend long you could spot EMS staff caring for overheated festival-goers who had too much. The grounds themselves were arranged in a way that allowed ease of movement between different stages and parking on the way in was never too difficult. That said, getting out was a mess for a lot of folks who chose to stay until the last note of the day. Unfortunately, Levitate is located just miles away from the bridges leading to Cape Cod that are notorious for backing up traffic. The Fourth Of July can be counted on to be one of the worst times for Cape traffic and event organizers might do better planning the event on a different week than Independence Day.

Maybe with its continued success, Levitate will continue to grow in size and join the uniform hordes of mainstream events, or fail to adapt and fade away. Unfortunately, the festival market hasn’t demonstrated much room for a middle ground, but without knowing what lays ahead, enjoying Levitate as it stands becomes that much more meaningful. Good things don’t always last, but a sold-out crowd spent the weekend getting the most out of Levitate while they can.

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