Concert Review: Levitate Music & Arts Festival — A Musically and Spiritually Inclusive Anniversary
By Paul Robicheau
As a major destination fest only a short ride south of Boston, Levitate still remains true to the reggae/jam culture of its surf-shop community.
“Oh, my job is so much fun,” a sweaty Brandi Carlile piped to adoring fans who packed the Marshfield Fairgrounds for Sunday’s finale to the Levitate Music & Arts Festival. After 20 years of coming to Boston, the rocking Seattle singer/songwriter modestly marveled that a festival crowd had turned out to see her rather than the “band the night before” and that she got to take the stage after the sun had set.
Of course, things have changed for the Grammy-winning Carlile, who was making her first local stop since two performances at TD Garden — one as a headliner and one at Gov. Maura Healey’s inauguration. What hasn’t changed is the joie de vivre that Carlile brings to the stage. On Sunday, she served as beaming ringleader of a band featuring twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth (who flanked Carlile all those years), ace drummer Matt Chamberlain (who graced her second album), a string quartet, and — supposedly due to canceled flights — cameos from singer Jess Wolfe of Lucius and guitarist Celisse, whose bands performed earlier in the festival.
Yes, it was so much fun — and a coup that capped three days of Levitate, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in fine form, with increasing daily attendance that benefited from a lucky weather bounce of cooling cloud cover rather than rain.
A decade ago, the Levitate fest began as a glorified BBQ staged by its namesake skate and surf shop down the street, but it’s grown to crowds of up to 20,000 per day. While most of this weekend fell far short of that mark, the operation proved more ambitious and seamless than in the past, with production support from Live Nation staff and barely any lines for food, drink, and restrooms.
As a major destination fest only a short ride south of Boston, Levitate still remains true to the reggae/jam culture of its surf-shop community, from the Duxbury-born Stick Figure (which has played the festival every year and headlined on Friday) to Jamaican scion Ziggy Marley, who performed early on Sunday with nods to his iconic father in repertoire. The second stage also drew robust crowds for power-reggae from Boston’s Elovators on Saturday and California’s Rebelution on Sunday, the latter showing that sing-alongs weren’t limited to the Carlile faithful as the horns-accented Rebelution shifted into “Feeling Alright.”
Saturday boasted the broadest potential, especially for jam fans, with the Trey Anastasio Band and Goose — who toured together last fall — atop the lineup. They were preceded on the main stage by Peach Pit, whose modest indie-pop seemed overwhelmed by the setting, though the Vancouver band had its fans and slid to the guitar harmonies of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” to end one song. Australian pop-rockers Lime Cordiale flashed a quirkier attitude on the second stage, striking poses with raised guitars, a snatch of clarinet, and a cover of Aussie band Divinyls’ 1991 hit “I Touch Myself.” But the afternoon’s most engaging set came from the Heavy Heavy, a British duo of co-singers Will Turner on guitar and Georgie Fuller on organ and scarf-trailing tambourine, sealing a male/female dynamic that evoked classic Fleetwood Mac. With simpatico bandmates, they meshed fresh retro-rock turns, and they’ll be an act to watch at Newport Folk on July 28.
Goose continues its ascent as the heir apparent of the jam-band world, reflected in the tight, fluid intensity of its 80-minute set. The Connecticut quintet doesn’t display a lot of diversity but cruises its lanes with authority. A 19-minute “Arrow” nonetheless wove from funky keyboard grooves to unison prog riffs and a searing jam that — as if cued by brief drops in the air — neatly slipped into a cover of Blind Melon’s “No Rain” that included a beautifully gnarly guitar break by keyboardist Peter Anspach. He’d be the lead guitarist in most bands, but Rick Mitarotonda remains Goose’s lightning rod. He commanded with fierce, spidery runs and sustained high notes, culminating in a driving “All I Need” and “Arcadia.” Goose’s next local step: Sept. 13-14 shows at Boston’s Leader Bank Pavilion.
With Phish on an off-summer for New England dates, Trey Anastasio returned to headline Levitate with his solo band, this time in seven-piece form (including the incessant bottom of new bassist Dezron Douglas and percussive toys of Cyro Baptista). The band hit stride mid-set on Phish’s funky staple “Wolfman’s Brother,” boosted by trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick and trombonist Natalie Cressman, and a revved-up take on James Brown-styled nugget “Push on ’Til the Day,” the smiling Anastasio doing lower jumping jacks as he played. Bathed in red light, “About to Run” lent a serious vehicle for him to hit burning crescendos on guitar, though his solo group also exposed his overt optimism in Phish numbers “A Life Beyond the Dream” (with its chorus line “Don’t give up hope”) and “Everything’s Right.”
Not everything seemed quite right though. Fans likely anticipated that Anastasio and Goose would collaborate as they had on past occasions, especially their joint tour. Yet what seemed like a golden opportunity for both the bands and crowd to enjoy a novel treat didn’t happen. Each group delivered its own guest-free set, with Anastasio hoisting his guitar in digitized feedback to cap “First Tube” — and his turn in Levitate’s 105-minute headlining slot.
Leave it to Brandi Carlile, the only performer who may smile onstage more than Anastasio, to spread the joy of inviting extra friends onstage. She began by having members of her string section and Lucius’s Wolfe sing backup on “You and Me on the Rock” before speaking in awe about recording with Chamberlain to set up “My Song,” which morphed into a simmering spin on U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” “We’re a family,” Carlile said during band introductions — and that sense extended to her fans, as she paused two songs to request a path for women with medical issues to leave. But the singer moved beyond the interruptions and hit glorious notes in “Right on Time” (sung while she played piano) and “The Joke.”
“It’s a scary time to be a queer person in the US,” observed Carlile, who married her wife in Massachusetts, equating “old ideas” to a “dying, injured, dangerous animal.” Then her friends were back out in support, this time including Celisse, who lent a crushing guitar coda to “Live and Let Die,” which bled into “We Are the Champions” for a grand cover finale. Fans chanted “We’ll keep on fighting to the end” and swayed hands in unison as Levitate celebrated its musically and spiritually inclusive anniversary.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.