It took one very long and very hot four-day weekend to complete a mission that demanded ample peace, music and hula-hoops, regardless the obstacles. But by those standards, by any standards really, the 16th edition of the destination Gathering of the Vibes was an ultimate success.
Bridgeport mayor Bill Finch has the Seaside Park extravaganza's cultural and economic value immeasurable. Founder Ken Hays is quite satisfied with his decade-and-a-half old festival having become a uniquely family-friendly celebration.
But most telling was the gauge of Brian Markovitz, California founder of jam fan website Deadheadland.com and veteran of the continental festival scene, who said the event that saw a respectfully eclectic line-up of bluegrass, reggae, jam, alternative and more was a "nine, I'd say nine and a half."
And that's out of 10. And that's pretty darn good. And that's in spite of the record heat wave that mercilessly smothered this half the nation, effectively giving the event, particularly on Friday, the feel of some strange physical endurance test. But with so much at stake and so much dancing to be had, it was one seemingly all passed but with the help of the welcoming Long Island Sound.
The Vibes remains a Mecca show for the still steadfast devotees of the buoyant improvisational jam scene trademarked by friendly funny-colored dancing bears and skeletons with top hats. Naturally, two latter day incarnations of the Grateful Dead purveyed plenty pleasing rhythms.
The lengthy Friday night closer Furthur, featuring Dead guitarists Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, spent the better part of four hours transmitting groovy vibrations for those who find nothing intimate about dancing. "Big River," "Sugar Magnolia," and a commendable cover of The Beatles' symbiotic "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight" gave glow-in-the-dark vigor to the otherwise sunburned crowd.
And late afternoon Sunday penultimate performers the Rhythm Devils, featuring Dead drummers Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart put on pointedly percussive goodness with folksy versions of "Fire on the Mountain" and the Kinks' "Apeman." Even opening night the Grateful Dead tribute act known as Dark Star Orchestra closed the main stage with astonishing purple hues and atmospheric covers.
But as the Vibes has evolved over the past generation, so has its musical palette. There is still considerable room for jam artisans like Max Creek, or for Cajun blues statesmen like Dr. John and the Lower 911, or for native staple Deep Banana Blackout. But previously foreign genres of the alternative brand now make presence felt.
Elvis Costello & The Imposters brought an unbelievably fantastic show that likely proselytized some New Wave converts. An energetic closer of "Pump It Up" and the fitting "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding)" could not be denied brilliance. On "Watching the Detectives," a track that bobs like any anchored boat floating the Sound, Costello proved he could host brilliant jam sessions of jungle drumming, scatting and wailing guitars that could easily rival the likes of jam band princes and earlier performer moe.
Subsequently, the explosive and now classic alternative rock band Jane's Addiction ushered in a distinctly powerful and hard rocking element the crowd willingly embraced, the calypso-flavored closer "Jane Says" quite ecstatically. If these groups were before Vibes immigrants, they now have citizenship.
Good vibes yield unyielding partying. Each night, early morning actually, the smaller Green Vibes stage featured experimental acts that always balanced flashing lights and electro-pop music to the most intoxicating effect. After Furthur, for example, the demand to mob the synthesized jazz show by Big Gigantic was so great hordes rushed in like zombies hungry not for flesh but killer dance beats that last until three after midnight.
That's okay, because the concept of time and space became somewhat elusive over the course. Every night the campgrounds were alive with activity and drum circles until whenever, the people had no qualms about firing off mortars to celebrate dawn breaking.
The Gathering of the Vibes, which saw an average 25,000 daily, is something different. It's a carnival of girls in neon tutus, stilt walkers, hypnotic hula-hoop tricksters, solar-powered stations, a stage of standout kid musicians to be rock stars, and a virtual bazaar of independent vendors all overlooking the tides. It's hard not to embrace.
But the sun finally set Sunday after a considerably robust performance by acoustic guitar virtuoso John Butler, who left those left standing with a happy instrumental thought about his or Connecticut's "Oceans." And then it cooled off.