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The age-old question of what do you do with a sprawling concrete wasteland that’s in the middle of a bustling, walkable city has been answered. Put on a music festival there. Long reviled for its standoffish design, the area has been re-worked to favorable results by booking some high caliber bands, and others on their way up. This is the third event put on by the organizers, and the first for me. They’ve tweaked the design a bit, now with the two stages (Blue as the main stage, Red as secondary) 90 degrees to each other, rather than the parallel design from past events. The hulking concrete monolith that is City Hall still accounts for some annoying acoustic slapback depending on where you are standing, but no one ever promised that outdoor concert settings would be Carnegie Hall.
Friday’s kickoff would be a shortened affair relative to the offerings for Saturday and Sunday, and though it was the only day to still have day passes available, the brick and concrete canyon seemed pretty full to me. Cass McCombs pulled Richie Havens duty by plugging in first, and his spirited take on classic Americana songwriting felt pretty spot on. He may not be a household name, but with more than half a dozen records under his belt, he’s got the seasoning on both songcraft and live performance pretty well dialed in.
Next up was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Just like the guy who stood one one leg while wearing codpiece and blowing into a flute wasn’t named Jethro Tull, there is no Edward in this ensemble. But there is a clear leader, and Alex Ebert is the unmistakable, charismatic focal point of the band.
Strolling out on stage with loose white linen pants, a long overcoat and clutching a paper cup (what was in it? Single malt? Opium tea? Kombucha?), he instantly got the crowd moving in a way that McCombs couldn’t, and was equally at home on the stage or off it. He clambered down into the photo pit and did an impromptu dance with a few people, and would make a return visit to reach over the barricade while teenage aged girls screamed and stretched to touch the hem of his garb. His tousled mop of hair messily piled up is in contrast to the folk ramble execution of the band, which had a firm grip on the nu-folk sing-along anthems.
The city’s new mayor, Marty Walsh, is clearly a music fan- previously as state representative, he sponsored a bill to name the Modern Lovers classic “Roadrunner” as state song, and he welcomed the gathered throng and thanked them for contributing to the vibrancy of the city. Soon after, Jack Johnson came on stage, with a full-tooth grin and easy-going mannerisms that have been perfected by decades of living under the Hawaiian sun. He was a bit taken a back at the cool weather conditions of the night, “You call this summer? I had to put shoes on today.” He also appreciated the fact that some of the audience may have had some young kids with them, and played the big hit from Curious George “Upside Down” early in the set, before the wall of sleep hit the young ones. At the end of the show, he got the Magnetic Zeroes on stage and ran through a couple of non-obvious classics (“Rocky Raccoon,” “I Shall Be Released”).
While his music isn’t really my thing at all, it’s hard to begrudge Johnson his success- he’s got a great life, comes off as a very humble and down to earth person, and is living a dream. Who wouldn’t want to be able to dictate when to record and tour, with the remaining downtime consumed by ripping perfect curls of Hawaiian surf?
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