When I stepped into the pit for the first time on Friday, June 5th at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover in Seaside Heights, people were sitting on faded beach blankets with half-spilled glasses of beer in their hands. The temperature was a record low of a balmy 55 degrees, there was already sand in my shoes, and when the music started in provided the perfect climate to keep warm.
The two days of music were nothing short of a melting pot: Indie, folk, dance, pop, electronic, rock, it was all there in a sweet complement. We swayed just slightly off rhythm and sang when we didn’t know the words and broke our energy over the fifteen-foot barrier between crowd and stage. The sound was without limit and for twelve hours I was living in a Jackson Pollock painting: an explosion of rhythmic color, dynamic vitality that filled the space with organized frenzy that flowed free and unrefined.
The set opened with the up tempo London-based trio The Very Best, who brought to the stage a doseof hip-hop, dance/electro, and pop with traditional African roots supporting the mix. The songs started off lightly and eased into swift, pearly electro beats that popped with bubbly yellow and bright green and other times simmered to a mellower navy blue. They held underneath wailing vocals that took a shape all their own, a silvery contour of swirls that flowed to create a sound gentle but powerful. It was like wading in a river and being swept in the current near the shore instead of in the middle—the energy is detectable from the get-go. No deceptive shallows; just a storm of contagious movement. It was a bit of a douse of cold water, then, when Blake Mills took the stage directly after. The vocals and instrumentals, while impressive and beautiful with soft blankets of orange and blue, where like a shock to the system after such a lively preceding performance. Frontman Blake Mills himself never moved where he played from his seat at stage left and it was harder to appreciate the sound when I felt like I was should be on my third glass waiting for the text that never came.
It picked up again though when Dawes came on, and there was no cold water this time. The smiles on their faces never dropped as the songs captivated the crowd with flying riffs and onstage spins. If the songs were sad, it didn’t matter. They were a contradiction of bright yellow and sky blues, dotted with wide spots of cheerful red. They sent you on your way with parting words of comfort that could console even the gloomiest: “I hope the world sees the same person that you always were to me, and may all your favorite bands stay together.” (Fun fact: I went home and bought that album.) Alabama Shakes was colossaland lead singer Brittany Howard, who wore a simple floral print dress, took the air out of everyone else’s lungs as she belted out her high notes and strummed her guitar. I can’t remember the last time I saw that much simultaneous talent in someone, her entire being the incarnate of fizzling power. She’s the kind of person you see in a crowd and acknowledge how utterly cool they are and that you want to be friends them—but they’re just so cool and out of your league.
The bands on Saturday were a continuation of the pulse built the night before. With moments like The Vaccines where the sound drives the nails into the floorboard and the crowd pumps their fists, and other moments when Jenny Lewis stood atop the speakers with all the grace and rowdy poise of an Indie Rock angel.(The comic relief of the day was when she took a piece of pizza from a guy in the front row who had a full pie.) By the time The Flaming Lips came on, the crowd had thickened and buzzed with vigor that was itching to be released.
And wow, did The Flaming Lips release it.
The “psychedelic alternative rock” group took the stage in a storm of color and sound, literally. Frontman Wayne Coin donned neon green duct tape pants and a bright orange jacket with a train of silver balloons that fluttered like butterfly wings when he raised his arms, and the instrumentals roared behind them in a deafening cascade when he threw them into the crowd. It was easily the most fun act of the night, and the band wasted no time putting together an unforgettable masterpiece that detonated in a tie-dye of colors: neon orange and green (much like Coin’s outfit, ironically), purple, silver that infected the crowd figuratively and literally when cannons of confetti were launched into the evening air. The performance was nothing short of a live trip (psychedelic rock group anyone?) and dancing mushrooms and caterpillars and smiling rainbows sashayed across the stage breezily. The crowd went wild, and honestly there was no way you couldn’t. Even I was dancing and my cheeks hurt from smiling. And it didn’t even end there—just when you thought it couldn’t get better—because Coin took to a live hamster ball and crawled across the audience with a microphone in hand, the perfect finale with the quintessential sunset at his back.
By the time they had finished the question hung in the air precariously: How on earthwas Mumford & Sons going to top that?
I think they did, in their own way. While their performance was short on suggestive trips and colorful layers of rainbow, they approached instead from the angle of glittering silvers and dazzling emerald (think “Thistle & Weeds”) and blaring strips of white and gold (think “Little Lion Man”). The audience was sedated with mesmerizing banjo ballads (Winston Marshall), pulsing acoustic bass (Ted Dwayne), fringed keyboard (Ben Lovett), and of course the familiar frictionless vocals and guitar of frontman and namesake Marcus Mumford himself. The sound waxed and waned in tones of black and dark purple, melting into velvety navy blue with newbies like “Believe.” The majority of the songs were off the new album “Wilder Mind,” a completely different (and not altogether unwelcome) sound for the band. I’ve heard many a person complain that all their songs sound the same; indistinct acoustic intro, banjo soli, building sound that erupts in the bridge, weighty finish. It’s almost ironic how well received their new sound was because I also hear the people who shamelessly voice their distaste for other bands’ new musical paths. “They’ve gotten too mainstream. Their first albums were so much better. They should go back to their old sound.” What did you want them to do? Produce the same album four times? Mumford & Sons are a clear demonstration of what that looks like, and needless to say it was more than a small relief when Wilder Mind was less a detour from the old and more a new road.
The night finished up with Mumford & Sons bringing the other bands back onstage and playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” It was truly cathartic to hear The Boss performed on that sandy Jersey beach; with the crowd stretched so far back I couldn’t see its end. Mumford & Sons are truly a talented bunch and the show was nothing short of fantastic, even when some of the songs were a little indistinguishable. The other bands for the most part were nothing short of impressive. Considering this was only their second tour date, I’m more than excited to hear what they have in store for the rest of the summer. If the band are in a city near you, I highly recommend doing yourself a favor and picking up a couple tickets—this is a prime summer event you really don’t want to miss.