BOSTON — By any measure the second annual Life Is Good Festival at the Prowse Farm in Canton was a smashing success, with capacity crowds on both Saturday and Sunday, and, once last week’s rain passed by, good weather for the family-centric crowds of 10-12,000 each day.
The Life Is Good Festival began last year, when the company that specializes in feel-good t-shirts and other paraphrenalia staged its first festival to raise money for a variety of kids charities. The emphasis was on family-friendly music with a positive message and if that means hard rock is not exactly prevalent, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of fire.
There were indubitably some saccharine, somnambulant soft-rock moments, but overall it was a fun weekend in 2010, with Ben Harper, among others, providing some real heat.
This year’s lineup was even better, with Brooklyn’s Avett Brothers’ heartfelt set absolutely stunning on Saturday night, and Michael Franti and Spearhead staking a claim for the title of Quintessential Life is Good band with their lively set of anthems about unity and empowerment.
On Sunday both Brandi Carlile and Levon Helm were incredible in sets that had the backing of the Boston Pops, while Robert Randolph’s Band brought some sizzling soul-rock, Raphael Saadiq’s funk was the weekend’s fiery highlight, and Ray LaMontagne’s final set brought the fest to a close with laidback rootsy soul.
As last year, the festival utilized two stages at opposite ends of the big open pasture area, with the bands schedules staggered. When an act finished at the main stage, the music would just be starting on the back stage, so fans could hear everyone and there was nearly continuous music all weekend. There was even a special side stage for children’s music, featuring Keller Williams, Laurie Berkner, BenRudnick, and L’Imagination Movers.
The Avett Brothers might just be the premier Americana band in music today, with the vocal harmonies of brothers Seth and Scott Avett just one factor. The Avetts also write strikingly original tunes with confessional, storytelling lyrics, and traditional instruments used in inventive new ways: Joe Kwon’s cello is an integral part of their sound, but there is also plenty of banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar and piano. There’s such simple purity and depth to their sound that you can’t believe these old souls are actually quite young.
The Avetts’ set scored early with “Will You Return,” a song that traverses pop and traditional elements so skillfully you might think the Beatles had gone bluegrass. The Avett Brothers also unveiled a new song from their upcoming album, “The Once and Future Carpenter,” a midtempo, semi-autobiographical look at struggling musicians trying to make a living, where the two acoustic guitars blended as seamlessly as the brothers’ vocals.
There’s also a strong element of family and simple verities in the Avetts music, and you could have heard the proverbial pin drop as Scott sang “Murder in the City” solo. That tune is a kind of what-if last testament, wherein the singer’s main plea is to tell his children, wife, and parents how much he loved them. With hundreds of little kids everywhere you looked, and multi-generation groups sprinkled throughout the crowd, that heartfelt song was a powerful moment, rewarded with a thunderous ovation.
Scott Avett moved to piano as the quintet powered through “Handful of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” another sort of autobiographical slice of young men tyrying to find themselves, punctuated by surging dynamics and a killer chorus most fo the crowd knew. Seth Avett had his solo turn on “The Ballad of Love and Hate,” his parable about a mythic romance, but again, it’s central point about being kind to one another fit the festival theme perfectly.
The Avetts closed Saturday night with a blazing stretch of their most dynamic songs, from the pounding piano/drums love anthem of “Kick Drum Heart,” to the hoedown sprint through “Take On Indolence.”
The night had to end, of course, with their signature hit, another compelling semi-autobiographical story where the fellow admits, against all logic, he had a hard time combining the words “I and Love and You.” The Avett Brothers Band came back for an encore, a lilting countrified take on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” capping off one of the best and most consistent 75-minute sets we’ve seen anywhere lately.
Earlier Michael Franti & Spearhead had provided enough musical sunshine for the cloudiest day. Franti had been half of the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, before taking his solo music more in a worldbeat direction, stresing uplifting themes.
Songs like the impossibly vivacious “I’ll Be Waiting” had the throng dancing gleefully to the sextet, as the lanky 6’6 frontman acted more like choirmaster than rock star. “It’s Never Too Late” was a midtempo, ballad-type of song, whose theme was forgiveness and community, and again it became a massive singalong.
“What I Be,” from his 2003 breakthrough album “Everyone Deserves Music,” was another thousands-strong communal lovefest, as Franti bounded about the stage. Franti recruited children and willing folk like the 64-year old woman he found down front, who danced with him as Franti sang the reggae-tinged “Say Hey (I Love You).” With all of his music delivered over intoxicating worldbeat polyrhythms, Franti’s songs are too darned infectious to allow anyone a cynical thought.
Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson appeared on the back stage with her backing quintet, and rocked a lot harder than some of her albums might indicate. Michealson gets the mythic award for Best Intro of the weekend, as she was donning a ukelele to do her solo rendition of “You and I,” with her quintet adding backup vocals. Noting that some people dismissed her music as “cute,” Michaelson said she resisted that label. “But, I must admit,” she said, “this next song is like a Care Bear pooping out Skittles.”
Michaelson’s “Far Away” was the kind of bouncy ballad that suggested someone combined polka and rock ‘n’ roll. But her set-closing “The Way I Am” proved that she can kick out a rocker with the best of them.
Braintree’s Johnny Adams saw us later on and noted that Boston songsmith Martin Sexton and his band delivered one of the best early sets on Saturday. Of course, Adams was wearing a vintage Sexton tee-shirt at the time, so he may be prejudiced, but Sexton is one of the most reliable all-out performers in contemporary music.
Sunday’s two big events were the Boston Pops members sitting in with both Brandi Carlile and the Levon Helm Band. Since Helm’s singing is very limited due to throat problems, his band includes two female backup singers Teresa Williams and Amy Helm, guitarist Larry Campbell, and keyboardist Brian Mitchell, all of whom pitch in on vocals. The Helm Band’s 75-minute set was like an old-fashioned rhythm and blues revue, with some country nuggets tossed in.
The Levon Helm Band opened with a blistering romp through “This Wheels on Fire,” emphasizing the gospel roots of that song, with their five-man horn section giving it a delectable big band potency. The women sang a torchy r&b tune, apparently “Reasons For Lovin’ You Baby,” and also a mandolin-driven take on “Long Black Veil.”
Helm himself seemed to take the lead vocal on The Band favorite “Ophelia,” his voice rapsy and low, but the big band gave it such a delightfully ramshackle music hall quality it was fun nonetheless. Mitchell sang the slow blues “The Same People You Meet On Your Way Up,” as the horns provided surging choruses. Campbell played fiddle for a terrific Cajun two-step sung by Williams, “Making a Living By the Sweat of My Brow.”
The Boston Pops members, a ten-man string section joined Helm’s group for the final five songs, including a superb folk-hymn apparently called “When the Words Won’t Come.” Ray LaMontagne joined the crowded stage to sing Dylan’s “Tears of Rage,” and it was immediately apparent how his vocals have been influenced by Helm. The segment ended with LaMontagne singing a wonderfully rowdy version of “The Weight,” enhanced by those horns and that ten-man string section that made it all feel like a backwoods orchestra.
Raphael Saadiq may have been the fest’s biggest surprise, for fans who weren’t aware of his superb neo-soul albums. Once a part of Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq carved out a thriving career as producer before pursuing his own musical dreams. The Oakland, California area native crafts music in the vein of Sam Cooke or perhaps Wilson Pickett, although his tenor vocals might remind you more of Jackie Wilson.
While Saadiq might look like a bespectacled computer nerd, he was all dynamite when he hit the stage Sunday night, leading his sextet through a roaring, hard funk workout on Buddy Miles’ old “Them Changes.” Saadiq not only sang and danced with abandon, he also played some concise guitar leads. His own original “Heart Attack” suggested his love of Sly and the Family Stone.
Charles Jones’ skittering piano lines made Saadiq’s “Radio” sound as if Fat Domino had a precocious grandchild writing his brand of vibrant ‘50s rock. Saadiq did more ballads in the last half of his show, and Jones’ organ solo and vocal-plus-scat singing turn on “I Never Felt This Way Before” made him a crowd favorite along with the singer. Robert Randolph came out to join Saadiq’s band for “You Should be Here,” adding his trademark heavy metal-pedal steel.
Randolph and Saadiq turned the latter’s song about full figured women, and our guess for a title would be “Booty Walking Mama” into a wacky but warm tribute. The syncopated beats of “Day Dreams” which features Randolph on Saadiq’s new record “Stone Rollin’,”was another chance for that duo to raise the roof with barnburning, polyrhythmic soul. Earlier on the back stage, Randolph and his Family Band had provided a typically expansive hour long set of rockin’ soul, culminating in a final bluesy number that had Randolph’s pedal steel wailing through several Jimi Hendrix quotes in an incredible solo.
After all that heat, Ray LaMontagne’s headlining set was a good way to cool everybody down for the ride home. LaMontagne and his quartet, the Pariah Dogs, crafted a slinky r&b vamp for his swampy “Repo Man.” Larry Campbell, from the Helm band, returned to play fiddle on a buoyant trip through Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”
Lamontagne, 38, noted that The Byrds’ 1968 album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” had been vastly influential to his music, and then performed a stellar cover of “Blue Canadian Rockies” from that record. Some of his songs after that were too quiet, too pensive, and sounded too much alike, but LaMontagne recovered for a nice final stretch.
Pedal steel gave “New York City is Killing Me” an especially plaintive feel, and that gentle toe-tapper was one of LaMontagne’s best. The Nashua native’s own jangly guitar gave “Trouble,” the title cut from 2004 debut, enough energy to power his raspy soul vocal. And LaMontagne’s encore of “Let It Be Me” was the low key benediction needed to conclude this fest.
Festival organizers were confident the weekend’s events raised over $1 million for the various Life Is Good charity programs, centered on kids.