I gotta admit that when I get to cover a music festival I know I’m in for something unique. Many of the country festivals I’ve photographed over the last several years provide me with some unintentional comedy, such as the older-than-fifty-year-old-woman-who-should-know-better-than-to-drink-in-the hot-summer-sun type as she barfs her guts out behind (and on) the green porta-potties in full sight of all the twenty-somethings laughing at her apparent lack of wisdom. Hot sun, beer and three o’clock in the afternoon make for a long night of music, eh?
The cool thing about a fest is you never know what you’re going to see: Whether it be a drunk woman, an impromptu makeout session, or a communal experience as several thousand people are caught up and swept away in a once-in-a-lifetime musical performance, a festival is an organic, living and breathing experience.
Last weekend’s inaugural LaureLive Fest was touted as “Music With A Mission.” Benefiting the Laurel School, a K-12 girls’ school located in Shaker Heights, this is the 216’s first (and only) bona fide alternative music festival. Although the booked acts were geared primarily to the high school/early college demographic (and why shouldn’t they be?), the music was amazing and the atmosphere was befitting a beautiful blue-skied weekend.
Held on the Laurel School’s Novelty, Ohio sports campus, the venue was populated by all sorts of food and merch vendors. Promoted by the Beachwood-based The Elevation Group, the fest suffered from a few newbie hiccups along the way. Saturday’s attendance had me a little scared that this may be a one-off affair; there were probably about 1500 people there at any given time on Saturday. The garbage cans kind of got a little overfilled at times and some of the garbage was spilling over onto the ground. But if I have to pick any nits that would be it.
Sunday, and its cooler temps, saw a much larger crowd. The garbage collection was in check all day Sunday and any little bugs from the day before seemed to have gotten ironed out.
The festival’s four stages were spread out evenly with the local musicians’ stages set up somewhat closer to the entrance of the venue and the two main stages adorning the rear of the venue, set up across the track and field stadium of the Laurel campus. Two stages made for quick turnaround between acts; while one band was playing the other stage was prepping with load-in and setup for the next act.
Saturday saw a great lineup; the first national act to hit the main stage was Ra Ra Riot. They played a dozen songs from their catalog, closing with “I Need Your Light.”
Songstress ZZ Ward took the second stage and really lit up the audience with her bluesy, alto voice and the precision dropping of an f-bomb on an audience made up of a cadre of soccer moms and their offspring. About a dozen of the moms within earshot lost their shit when she said that, sending them into a panic that she may pepper her performance with more language unsuitable for the younger crowd. Rest assured, Ms. Ward said “shit” once and then kept the rest of her dialogue to a quantifiable Disneyspeak. But it was entertaining to see many of these hyper-vigilant moms ready to spring to the side of their six year-olds and cover their ears at the drop of a dime. It’s a rock concert, aren’t a few swears allowed?
Andrew McMahon took the stage next. A cancer survivor, he played a piano-driven set of his most popular tunes.
Ithaca-based alt rock band X Ambassadors offered their brand of RHCP-influenced tunes on the main stage.
Popular touring band OAR headlined the night; their garage-band sound brought the first night’s music to an end.
Except, of course, for the first “late night” act as Ohio University-founded Red Wanting Blue took to the main stage for an after-dark set. This is one band to keep your eyes on; they tour hard and keep finessing their sound. I see big things for them in the very-near future.
Sunday saw temps hovering the in the high sixties. It was cooler but much hotter than Saturday, if ya know what I mean.
The lineup stared with Ohio native Elle King taking the main stage. I couldn’t tell if she was ill or nursing a hangover. She walked out in a Bud Light baseball cap with a bottle of Bud Light in tow. Her banter with the audience was minimal and she seemed to be sleepwalking through her performance. She ended the set with her most popular tune “Ex’s and Oh’s.” Don’t ask her if she’s the daughter of Rob Schneider, by the way. She hates that.
Keyboardist/vocalist Andy Grammer came on next, much to the delight of the thousand screaming girls pressed up against the barricade.
The highlight of the festival was Michael Franti and Spearhead. Their 90+ minute set embodied the heart of what a festival should be. After taking the stage for a few minutes, the always-barefoot Franti jumped the barricade and played from within the crowd for a good fifteen minutes. He then jumped back over the barricade and took the stage. Throughout the balance of their set he jumped back and forth between the stage and crowd about four more times.
A lot of musicians pour on the phony peace/love/we are all one mantra, but Franti appears to be the real deal. He was the only musician to ask for a moment of silence for the previous night’s horrible shootings in Orlando. He pulled children onto the stage to sing along with him and he genuinely looked pleased to be amongst a crowd of music fans who sang along to his lyrics. He placed his biggest hit “Say Hey (I Love You)” in the middle of the set, and closed with both a cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and John Lennon’s opus “Imagine.” The energy in the crowd was palpable.
I kinda felt sorry for Grace Potter; she was the headliner and, after the Spearhead performance, had a really tough act to follow. She played the west-facing stage and, as the sun started to hang low in the sky, closed the evening out with a 100-minute set. Ms. Potter engaged the audience by leaving the stage, which was set about a hundred feet up a hill and away from the barricaded crowd, and sang a few tunes as she walked the two-hundred foot long barricade at an arms’ length from the fans.
And with that, this inaugural fest came to a close.
I can’t say how excited I was to witness Cleveland’s first music festival. I think The Elevation Group really knocked this one out of the park.
I hope when their accountants wade through all the bills and pay all their vendors that this fest was in the black. Cleveland needs an alt music fest (Of course the Tri-C Jazz Fest is a 216 staple) that can draw national acts and grow every year.
I hope that this one will be it. After all, and excuse me soccer moms, this one was the shit.