Levitate Music & Arts Festival 2019: Recap, Photos & Videos

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In its seventh year, Levitate Music & Arts Festival has established itself as the East Coast jam band festival all others should be judged by. The festival market as a whole has gotten painfully homogenous over the past two years and while other regional events are competing over the same Top 40 acts, Levitate has found success following an entirely different path that places an emphasis on an eclectic, improv-heavy lineup that manages to be physically comfortable at a very competitive price.

The event held at the Marshfield Fairgrounds in Marshfield, Massachusetts started out small and over the years has grown in size and length. This was the first three-day incarnation and you’d be hard-pressed imagining their fans accepting anything less next year.

The first day had an abbreviated lineup showcasing the three acts on Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheels of Soul tour. TTB killed it per usual with an ensemble that allows them to pull off any kind of arrangement, but rather than what songs they played, what stood out was who they were playing with. This was the first Boston-area show since the passing of Kofi Burbridge and although his replacement is a charismatic performer and wonderful keyboard player, Kofi was a presence on the stage that simply can’t be substituted. Tedeschi is a Massachusetts native and always has family in the house for these shows and before kicking off John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” she dedicated it to her grandfather who counted the folk classic as his favorite song.

Earlier in the day, Andy Frasco and The U.N. put on a high energy performance that was easy to get a kick out of but hard to take seriously. Frasco has a great band with him and is a natural performer but it felt lame how much he kept bragging about how high he was. Telling the crowd he was into cocaine made his enthusiasm come off as less sincere and while pounding beers on stage and smoking blunts handed up to him from the crowd might seem rock ‘n’ roll to some, he had a really young crowd and the hard-partying antics felt more like immature shtick than certifiably badass. His band has the chops and he has the moves that this kind of pandering wasn’t necessary and started to feel obnoxious.

Following Frasco on the Style Stage was the Boston-based act Ripe that were an early weekend highlight. With a lineup featuring horn players, guitarists, keys and a frontman who loves to work it, these guys are a modern funk act that put on a show that’s rooted in old school funk but made interesting through a sonic footprint very much their own. On a scene where most guitarists play an instrument resembling Trey’s Languedoc or Jerry’s Wolf, Ripe’s lead axeman wielded a pink superstrat routed and modded to be more like Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat. If you like your funk served up straight a la Lettuce, these guys might not feel authentic enough for you but if you’re into a modern Turkuaz-esque twist on the genre, you simply cannot sleep on these cats any longer.

Levitate Music & Arts Festival 2019 – Friday Live Stream

Saturday was the first full day of music for the weekend and an early highlight was St. Paul and The Broken Bones. They play old school R&B and while there’s nothing particularly unique about the sound, they have a gem of a frontman in Paul Janeway who owned the stage with a quirky, neo-diva stage presence that made great-sounding songs particularly fun to watch.

Sublime with Rome had a big crowd and with a catalog the whole audience knew, it should have been like shooting fish in a barrel. Unfortunately, it was one of the biggest disappointments of the weekend. Rome Ramirez does sound and play just like late Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell but other acts over the weekend played Sublime covers with more passion and enthusiasm. The lesson here is when the name of the band is literally the result of litigation, it’s best to manage expectations.

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats were technically the headliners on Saturday but that honor truly belonged to Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. JRAD played before Rateliff and on a smaller stage but they had a longer set and a bigger crowd. The Grateful Dead tribute act brings an unparalleled ferocity to the catalog of songs and all weekend long, you kept hearing people say how much better they are right now than the actual surviving members who perform as Dead & Company. One woman told me she saw 40 Grateful Dead concerts but would take JRAD over D&C every time.

Part of what makes Levitate so magical is how it recreates the vibe of the early-2000s golden era of jam band festivals and true to form, Sunday was packed with reggae. Steel Pulse laid down some authentic Caribbean rhythms with authority early in the afternoon. The best set of the day and maybe the entire weekend was the superjam hosted by Twiddle’s Mihali Savoulidis. Although Twiddle wasn’t on the bill, a few of its members joined forces with members of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Stick Figure to serve up an improve heavy set comprised of covers by Sublime, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Talking Heads.

The community vibe you get from musicians sharing the stage with their friends was one of the more endearing elements of early Bonnaroos as well as jam band festivals like Wakarusa, and All Good and as the market has gone mainstream, that element has been sorely missed. The official billing of the set was Mihali & Friends Community Jam and although it sounds corny, the name proved to be a perfect description.

Levitate Music & Arts Festival 2019 – Saturday Live Stream (Part 2)

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and Tedeschi Trucks Band both drew a crowd but Stick Figure’s set on the Main Stage might have been the most packed of the weekend. Returning the favor and inviting Mihali out was a major highlight but the star of the show was an Australian Shepard mix named Coco that won the crowd over before the human members of the group took the stage. Cocoa stood at the foot of the stage, peering out across the crowd, while people chanted her name and threw stuffed animals up for her to devour. She was laser-focused on the beach balls bouncing around the crowd and went nuts whenever one of them made it to the stage.

Although Stick Figure has gone national, frontman Scott Woodruff grew up a few miles from the festival grounds and they’re the only act to have played every incarnation of the event. Levitate Surf Shop launched the original event and after being impressed, Woodruff raved to his management about the fest and told them not to miss the boat. The resulting partnership between Levitate and Ineffable Music is responsible for the event as it exists today.

I spoke with Levitate founder Dan Hassett and Ineffable Music’s Thomas Cussins during the weekend about the journey and how they’ve gone about growing the event. They both emphasized the importance of a comfortable event with a community vibe and judging by the clean bathrooms, abundance of water refill stations and short lines for food and drinks, it’s clear that they’ve learned from their mistakes and gotten things as polished as can be.

The EMS personnel were set up in numerous tents on-site and also roamed the grounds keeping an eye out for folks showing signs of overheating. The grounds themselves have been fine tuned to the point where they increased attendance but it didn’t feel any more crowded than previous years. More than anything, the layout, flow of foot traffic and distance between stages really made the time spent on the grounds feel intimate, even among tens of thousands of attendees.

More than any single act, the best part of the weekend was looking around at folks who came from Florida, Arizona, Illinois and even as far as St. Martin, and appreciating that after watching festival institutions like Gathering of the Vibes fold, New England once again has a jam band festival worth traveling across the country for.

It was the smoothest Levitate yet, with a bigger stage, better lights and least traffic (at least by Cape Cod standards). More folks than ever camped out this year which built on the community vibe and the lineup showcased numerous acts that any citizen of JamBase Nation would enjoy. Even though booking Trey Anastasio last year was a major “get,” festival organizers raised the high water mark this year by improving the experience as a whole and more than Boston Calling, Governors Ball, Grand Point North or Newport Folk, Levitate made it clear that they’re the first weekend to circle when making plans for summer 2020.

Levitate Music & Arts Festival 2019 – Sundy Live Stream (Parts 1 & 2)