Cleveland now has a bona fide music festival that doesn’t have the words “Tri-C JazzFest” in its title. Beachwood’s The Elevation Group, in collaboration with the Laurel School, a Shaker Heights-based kindergarten through twelfth grade girls’ school, just completed its sophomore version of LaureLive, a two-day gathering of bands that are emerging onto the national music scene and have a broad appeal among the teenage and college crowd demographic.
Last year’s effort, a huge undertaking by any measure, had a few hiccups here and there, most notably a small selection of food choices and first-day-growing pains where the garbage cans were filled to the brim and spilling out all over the green, green grass. The garbage situation was, thankfully, rectified by the next morning and the food truck scenario must’ve been discussed in committee because this year’s selection was bigger and better than last year’s.
As a festival, how was it? The music offerings were more varied and a larger, more diverse crowd was apparent at this year’s fest. The weather was a tad hot; temps hovered at around ninety degrees for the length of both days. Elevation made sure they had plenty of hydration stations situated around the campus, thereby giving everyone access to chilled, potable drinking water.
Food trucks from all over Northeast Ohio set up shop at the perimeter of the grounds. Angelo’s Pizza of Lakewood, a perennial pizza bake-off competition winner, saw crowds at their truck all weekend. Barrio, another West Side taco truck, held court at the entrance to the venue. There were dozens of food vendors and the variety was fantastic; the prices were very reasonable for a locked-down crowd where picnic baskets and outside drinks were disallowed.
This festival was a perfect way to kick off the summer. It was definitely bigger than last year’s edition and everyone involved, from the security staff to the vendors, showed nothing but enthusiasm and professionalism. I didn’t come across one unruly attendee; there were no drunken fights and everyone was well-behaved. Kudos to The Elevation Group for making us all Cleveland Proud.
Saturday’s lineup saw a stable of local bands play the South Stage, closest to the entrance. Liv Cargile put on a great set early on, and throughout the day locals like Akron’s Shivering Timbers picked up the mic.
The two main stages, the east-facing “Laurel Stage” and the west-looking “Music Elevates” stage hosted the national acts throughout the day. Between the two stages was a large field (actually, the Laurel Schools’ track and field facilities) so fest goers could park themselves comfortably between the two stages and see and hear both stages magnificently, with an unimpeded view of either stage. Only those who wanted an up close and personal experience with the bands really needed to park themselves in front of the barrier.
Arkells took to the stage at 1:30, starting off a long, hot day of music. Playing a blistering thirty-minute set, the newer band set the tone for the artists to follow.
The Mowgli’s, a Calabasas, California-based outfit, took the stage at 2:45 for a fifty-minute set. The seven-year old band ran through tracks from their five albums, most notably tunes from their 2015 effort, Kids in Love.
The South Stage saw up-and-comers The Unlikely Candidates play a loud set to the mid-afternoon crowd. Unfortunately, the stage had a small footprint for the size of the band and their otherwise-inspired late-era Jim Morrison theatrics were impeded by the environment. The Fort Worth-based band has a future; I’d like to see frontman Kyle Morris in a larger environment where he could perform unhindered by the size of the stage.
JohnnySwim, a Nashville husband and wife duo, played the Laurel Stage next. Their brand of folk/pop and bluesy soul was a highlight of the afternoon. Look for them to break out within the next year or two.
Blue October was the closest to a genuine rock band that LL2017 had to offer. Most of the bands espoused the Americana/folk sound that’s become very popular over the last half decade or so. Not these guys: Tats a-blaring, voices cranked to eleven, and a swagger not found at too many teen-oriented fests left me blown away by the Alt Rock sound that they were pushing in the ninety-degree heat. Frontman Justin Furstenfeld had the swagger of Lenny Kravitz, a dose of theatricality a la Freddie Mercury and the sneer of Buckcherry’s Josh Todd. Although the band’s been around since 1995, they’ve only recently started making a large name for themselves.
The Revivalists, a Nawlins “Roots-based” rock band, has released four albums since their inception in 2007. Their single, “Wish I Knew You” charted at #1 in May of this year. Their 75-minute set drew a large crowd at the Laurel Stage late in the afternoon.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones, an Alabama-based outfit founded in 2012, took the stage at 6:45. As the sun lowered in the Saturday sky, frontman Paul Janeway approached the crowd, channeling a little bit of Freddie Mercury and a dash of Liberace. His bright red smoking jacket was covered in a silver cape. Very 1970s cum 1770s. The band launched into their set; Janeway’s vocals were guttural and his swagger was undeniable. This is a soul band worth keeping your eyes on.
Need To Breathe (or rather, NEEDTOBREATHE) took the stage at 8:00 playing a ninety-minute set. The Christian Rock band, hailing from South Carolina, formed in 2001 and has released six albums since 2006.
Saturday night headliner Gary Clark, Jr. waited until the sky was pitch black–no ambient light to speak of–to take the stage. Surrounded by swirling banks of fog, courtesy of two fog machines turned up to eleven, Clark’s people created a copious amount of atmosphere for the 33-year old guitar wizard to shred. Playing a ninety-minute set, his virtuoso guitar skills were on display.
Wrabel, an L.A.-based singer/songwriter took the Laurel Stage as the first offering on a blisteringly-hot Sunday afternoon. His pop sensibilities, imagine Sam Smith, have caused the young artist to gain traction fairly quickly.
Muddy Magnolias, a pleasant breath of fresh air, played the South Stage early in the day. The Nashville-based duo, whom Rolling Stone in 2014 called the “Best Unsigned Duo,” gave a spirited half-hour set. Not to get too redundant with my prose but, yep, this is another band to keep on your radar.
My favorite band of the weekend, much like last year’s breakout Michael Franti set, was L.A.-based Magic Giant. I’d never heard of them prior to the fest’s lineup announcement. Their energy, virtuoso percussion skills, and stage presence should propel this outfit into bigger venues and more notoriety. I really LOVED their entire set. Frontman Austin Bisnow’s smile accompanied his performance from the first moment he set foot on the Music Elevates Stage. Brian Zaghi (stage name “Zang”) was a dervish, whirling about the stage with his guitar and plenty of attitude. Please, please check them out. Incredible energy with this bunch…
Timeflies, founded in Boston, came to prominence not through album or single sales but rather through Youtube videos. They’ve sold less than a million albums but their videos have been watched over 175 million times; how’s that for millennial fever? Not too sure if that equates into any monetization for them, but at least their work is getting out there. Their hour long set drew a large crowd at the Laurel Stage.
Dawes, an L.A.-based folk rock outfit, played their hour set on the Music Elevates stage. Influences seem to be bands such as CSNY, as their set emulated that sound. Even in the brutal heat and lack of shade, this set was well-attended by the attendees of the fest.
The Strumbellas, probably the coolest-named band playing the festival, was next to the Laurel Stage. The Canadian Indie Rock/Country band formed in Toronto in 2008 and has released three albums, most recently 2016’s Hope. Their hour-long, up-tempo Alt Country set was a huge draw, even as the sun was still beating down upon the crowd.
Michael Franti and Spearhead, the highlight of last year’s fest, was welcomed back to this year’s edition to capture some of that same lightning. As beach balls bounced throughout the crowd, Spearhead got everyone up and moving. A rambunctious combo of high-energy syncopation, positive messages weaved throughout the music, and an Afro-Cuban backbeat to much of the proceedings, this band will hopefully be a staple in future LL endeavors.
Young the Giant, a band whose start in 2004 was challenging due to their rigorous high school and college schedules, played the Laurel Stage. The biggest crowd thus far packed themselves tight to the barricade to see the Irvine, California-based outfit perform. Frontman Sameer Gadhia grabbed the mic with the authority and panache of a young Freddie Mercury; his expressive face, white jumpsuit and big, gaudy gold necklace screamed “rock star.”
As the evening started to wind down and the heat, mercifully, started to abate headliners The Head and the Heart closed this year’s LaureLive out with a rousing ninety-minute set. The Seattle-based Indie/Folk outfit garnered a whole lot of attention from the crowd, testament to their drawing power: People stayed even as many of the food trucks shut down and the vendors were packing up their wares.
Band member guitarist Josiah Johnson, summing up their name, gives perhaps a perfect metaphor for the whole weekend experience: “Your head is telling you to be stable and find a good job, you know in your heart that this [the band] is what you’re supposed to do even if it’s crazy.”
And that, my friends, is a lesson that any K-12 school girl should learn.