-Canton, MA- At the conclusion of the final night of the second annual, “Life is good Festival,” at the Prowse Farm in Canton, MA, two things had been established. The first was that this event, showcasing eighteen performers over two days on two stages, in addition to the four mainstays in the “Good Kids Stage,” had established itself as perhaps the most family-friendly two-day music event in the country. The second was that main stage headliner, Ray LaMontagne, believed in the message.
After finishing a thoroughly enjoyable main stage set that mixed album cuts such as a plaintive, “Trouble,” with such unexpected treasures as a front porch friendly take on the standard, “Deep Ellum Blues,” the earnest New England native (New Hampshire born, Maine bred, Massachusetts residing) was unhesitant in urging fans to make use of mass transportation, to recycle their trash, and to be safe getting home. By this concluding hour he was preaching to a very converted and very appreciative audience.
The “Life is good Festival” is slowly but surely defining itself as a regular event where families can indulge their individual hopes for what defines a weekend day to remember. As Life is good “Director of Good Vibes,” James MacDonald said with a grin, “It’s not like a carnival, there’s no rides.”
He elaborated, “At a carnival, you put your kid in line for a ride and then you wait to watch them have a good time. Here, you have the good time with your kid. You play catch, you do the tug-of-war, you do the hula hoop. And the whole time you’re hearing fantastic music that the parents love and the kids just come to embrace.”
Not that there isn’t plenty of musical delight for the kids as well. Laurie Berkner, a return performer from last year’s festival, was such a huge presence that children were darting out in front of staff golf carts to get closer to the stage when she was announced. One smiling but seemingly exasperated mom declared, “For my daughter, she’s like the Police were for me!”
And not that it was just tug-of-war and frisbee on a sun-drenched day. Seemingly everywhere families indulged in such good ole fashioned fun as sack races and picnics. Around them twenty-something hipsters grooved to the tunes and tossed errant frisbees back to packs of kids chasing them down. The “good vibe” that is an integral part of the “Life is good” message was here transformed into something resembling a county fair. Granted, it was a county fair for families that were into good music.
There was certainly no shortage of that. The day’s final “Good Vibes” stage headliner, Raphael Saadiq, exhibited the confident sultriness that inspired Mick Jagger to tag him to back the Stones frontman at last year’s Grammy awards by welcoming earlier “Good Vibes” stage attraction Robert Randolph to join him on, “Be Here,” with the invitation, “Robert Randolph should be here!” The result was an electrifying set that wound up with a crowd sing-along on, “Let The Sunshine In,” from “Godspell.”
This followed Randoph’s own set on the “Good Vibes” stage with his Family Band, a set that provided an unholy racket of swampy electricity from such a spiritual man. Randolph’s dexterity with a slide was as deep rooted as the palms in the Florida turf where he first made his name as a church musician whose slide guitar was known as “Sacred Steel.”
The Levon Helm Band was perhaps the day’s most highly anticipated set. Helm, known for his founding role in the seminal 60’s rock group, The Band, as well as the regular “Rambles” he hosts at his home studio in Woodstock, NY (one of which he hosted the previous night), was an absolute delight.
Joined by members of the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, Helm and his band, which includes long-time Bob Dylan sideman, Larry Campbell, as well as his vocalist daughter, Amy, delivered a set that combining stirring familiarity (“The Weight,” enhanced by horns), unexpected obscurities, (the Grateful Dead nugget, “Attics Of My Life,” the first song with Pops woodwinds and strings) and re-invigorated classics (“Tears Of Rage,” with LaMontagne delivering a convincingly desperate lead vocal). Throughout, the eternally spry Helm applauded enthusiastically for his fellow musicians and even lent a lead vocal on the second verse of “The Weight.”
Brandi Carlisle has first use of the Pops, but had already made a big rootsy noise with a cover of Johnny Cash’s, “Folsom Prison Blues,” complete with a jammy interlude that showcased the hot rod talents of her band. The Pops joined in with majestic strings on, “Before It Breaks.” Carlisle’s set was also the first appearance of Pops conductor, Daniel Romaine, who in addition to fleshing out songs for both her and Helm’s sets with Pops direction, also laid down a mean violin to the Helm Band’s performance.
The movement between Carlisle’s set and the preceding set of homespun bluesy rock by the Ryan Montbleau Band made attendance tough to gauge. An estimated 10,000 attendees per day, is by Good Vibes chief MacDonald’s own admission, slightly down from last year’s figures. Remarkably, however, the “Life is good Playmakers,” had by Sunday’s conclusion achieved their one million dollar goal. Those funds will be in addition to an estimated $6.5 million already raised to help kids around the world.
Kids who would no doubt stand up and pay attention to Maceo Parker, whose credits include stints with James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic and for whom Jane’s Addiction coined a song entitled, “My Cat’s Name Is Maceo,” which Parker of course played on. On this day he was leading a dynamo operation that taught the “Life is good” crowd a lesson in standing up in the daylight to some nightime music.
Boston’s own Jenny Dee and the Deelinquents followed Malaysian singer, Zee Avi, in the day’s earliest performances. It was the first performance for the Deelinquents since the arrival of the first lower-case “d” (newborn Sidney, for singer Jen, and bass playing hubby, Ed Valauskaus) but their rolling take on new single, “Bandit Of Love,” proved the band has lost none of its touch with it’s Motown girl band influences.
Perhaps the success of the “Life is good Festival” is not even measured by bands or the adoring fans or the number of smiles that one encounters over a day on this absolutely beautiful site. Perhaps it’s simply measured by the one kid who’s awake as his parents transport his slumbering siblings to the car and asks, “Can we come back next year?”
-Tom Kielty has written for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Boston magazine, in addition to bylined articles in such national publications as Rolling Stone, Spin, and the Hollywood Reporter. He lives in Cambridge, MA with his girlfriend and his dog.