Floating on at Levitate Music & Arts Festival

Tyke James from The Moss was “stoked to be here”— and for all the free Levitate swag. Singer and pianist Neal Francis told the crowd he was “floating.” And The Dirty Heads’ bouncy and shirtless Jared “Dirty J” Watson, sporting “Goblin Mode” shorts, exclaimed that this was “short shorts” weather.

Performers at this past weekend’s Levitate Music & Arts Festival in Marshfield were in a playful and care-free mood, and that’s what you reliably get at this annual three-day collection of jam bands, reggae, blues, and soulful music. The South Shore event, organized by the Levitate surf and skate fashion brand, and which supports its arts-focused foundation, is an eclectic and tie-dyed chill party at which many families and friend groups converge for music, food, shopping—and to show off their most sparkly, colorful outfits.

I mean, the hats alone…

Levitate hat

 

Levitate hat

Levitate hatLevitate hat

 

In addition to music, Levitate features several rows of shopping tents selling everything from hemp hats to henna designs, plus artists painting murals and lots of food trucks and small eateries serving up lobster rolls and other essentials.

We went beyond Wellesley this year to hit the first two days of the festival (Day 1 & Day 2 recaps), which featured artists such as Mt. Joy, Orebolo (a Goose spinoff), multi-multi-multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana, and endlessly upbeat Saturday headliner Lake Street Dive. For us, the event was sublime, even though we weren’t there to see a reconfigured Sublime close out the festival on Sunday. Levitate features three music stages, including one where local acts shine for friends, family, and new fans. Attendees can bring in low-rise folding chairs, which helps them pace themselves for a day or weekend of activity during inevitably hot weather among thousands of their new best friends.

olie@oldbullmgmt.com; alyson@oldbullmgmt.com

 

Day 1 at Levitate

 

The first performer we caught on Friday was Jon Muq, an Austin-by-way-of-Uganda singer and guitarist who sang hopeful songs that weren’t unfamiliar to some in the early-arriving crowd. For others, discovering Muq was something many more may be poised to do—his first album, “Flying Away,” was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and Muq has opened for the likes of Mavis Staples.

Jon Muq Levitate Festival
Jon Muq, who will be appearing in Boston at City Winery and the House of Blues later this year.

 

A true storyteller, Muq frequently gave brief explanations for his songs before performing them. A number relate to his path from Africa to the United States. On “Runaway,” Muq was inspired by his move, a bittersweet decision that involved leaving friends and family behind. “This is what I wanted to do when growing up in Uganda,” he old the crowd, referring to public performances. On “Shake Shake,” Levitate-esque reggae seeped through, and “Hello Sunshine” was timed perfectly with sun peaking through the cloud cover above and audience members invited to join in for the chorus of “Hello, Hello sunshine, goodbye rainy days.”

Another rising star, 17-year-old Nashville blues guitarist Grace Bowers, could be heard maximizing her instrument at the Style Stage. Bowers and band amped up the energy for what wouldn’t be the last time during this festival lineup, with powerful vocals and bass left to Bowers’ bandmates. But all eyes and ears were on Bowers and the Gibson guitar she wielded with precision and abandon.

Bowers has little available in the way recorded music available, though that’s about to change with the release of “Wine on Venus” in August.

Grace Bowers, Levitate
Grace Bowers

 

 

The distance from the Style to the Soul to the Stoke stages at Levitate isn’t far, though criss-crossing between them does give an opportunity to check out the wider scene, including the

 

skateboarding, petting farm, and murals-in-progress

skateboarding at Levitate

mural at Levitate

mural at Levitate

Shopping at Levitate

Levitate
Fans keep their cool under a psychedelic covering

 

Now, back to the music…

The Moss, out of Salt Lake City by way of Hawaii, kept things rocking, and light, with raspy lead singer Tyke Moss going barefoot and bantering with bandmates and the crowd in between songs.

Fun fact, they told us, is that there are 63 kinds of moss, leading to a brief discussion of their favorites that threatened to drag on. “Sorry, we’ll keep playing music,” James quipped, launching into a new number. Later in this alt-rock set, complete with beach vibes, The Moss played “the horse section of the show,” appropriate at the fair grounds venue, featuring their “Secretariat” and a cover of America’s “A Horse with No Name.” They finished with power pop banger “Insomnia,” a sweet love song.

 

The Moss, Levitate
The Moss

 

Back to the Style stage, groovy pianist and singer Neal Francis (who could later be seen standing among the crowd for Orebolo’s set and posing for photos), proved to be a versatile performer. He even did a live demonstration of fixing his keyboard bench. “That’s what you get for messing with the bench,” he said, back in action before you knew it.

Fresh off a live album called “Francis Comes Alive,” it was clear why experiencing the Chicago artist and bandmates in person is the way to go. He eloquently veered from traditional blues and soul to more experimental sounds, and even wove in a bit of David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.”

Neal Francis, Levitate
Neal Francis was a dual threat on keyboards and the mic

 

Dirty Heads, the most Levitate-ish band in the Day 1 line-up, really got the party bopping with their late afternoon set. They were clearly the T-shirt competition winner on Friday, with many fans showing their allegiance on their backs and chests.

The band, formed in 2001, has had more than two decades to build up its following, which by the looks of it, spans generations. A clump of kids was right up against or on the railing in front of the stage, singing along to songs like “Day by Day” and a cover of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.”

Dustin Bushnell and Jared Watson traded off rapping lyrics, with Bushnell handling lead guitar and Watson looping his arms back and forth as he loped across the stage, inspiring plenty of goofy dancing in the crowd. The 8-piece Dirty Heads, fueled by horns and various percussion, also got into the collaborative spirit of the festival, inviting Jackson Wetherbee from The Elovators to join them for a song and get his feet wet for his hometown band’s Saturday set on the same stage.

Jared Watson of Dirty Heads
Jared Watson of Dirty Heads

 

Dustin Bushnell of Dirty Heads
Dustin Bushnell of Dirty Heads

 

I finished off my Friday night at Orebolo‘s quiet acoustic set (guitars, vocal harmonies, an upright bass) from three members of the popular jam band Goose. This was a rare appearance by the band in Massachusetts, where it last played in fall of 2022. Orebolo launched during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and can most often be found on the festival circuit.

And no, those weren’t “boos” before and during the set. People were yelling “goooose,” and for good reason—most of the dozen songs played were Goose covers (As a Sad Dad, I’m kicking myself for missing their cover of The National’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio”). Though Orebolo has also reimagined Goose’s music acoustically, including opener “Turned Clouds,” which is also on the trio’s new album, “The Chateau.”

Orebolo Levitate
Orebolo

 


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Day 2 at Levitate

 

Day 2 at the festival, like Day 1, was preceded by rain, though was less humid under a cloud cover. The crowds predictably were larger on Saturday than Friday, especially as the day wore on.

The first act I watched on Saturday was G. Love & Special Sauce, the Philly-based hip-hop blues and rock band that felt very at home on the Levitate Stoke stage. G. Love himself also looked at home in the VIP area later in the day, where he performed solo adjacent to the Braid Bar where patrons could request special dos.

GLove & Mihali Levitate
G. Love and Mihali

 

G Love levitate VIP
G. Love gets the VIP treatment

 

This fun loving band, unlike some of the newcomers at the festival, was able to say things like “we’re going to bring you back to 1994” to play songs off their debut album, like “This Ain’t Living.” G. Love multitasked on vocals, guitar, and harmonica, while a trio of brass players, a drummer, and Jimi Jazz on string bass propelled the music forward and kept it funky.

G. Love also invited Twiddle co-founder Mihali onto the stage for what would be the first of multiple appearances by the festival favorite during the day. A later performer, Joe Samba, in inviting Mihali to join his crew on stage, joked that Mihali had been “farting around on everyone’s stage” and would no doubt be showing up on another stage before long “to rip it up.”

In introducing “Who’s Got the Weed,” G. Love was sure to share a public service announcement, urging attendees to “pace yourselves,” as there was still plenty of festival to go.

I next bopped over to see The Hip Abduction, a reggae/jam/rock band out of Florida that yeah, got its name from a piece of exercise equipment. Lead vocalist and guitarist David New was upfront with the crowd that the band was going to use its 55-minute with a purpose: “We’re going to jam a little.”

The highlight for me during their tropical trip, including sweet songs like “Garden Grove,” was when Justino Lee Walker brought out an instrument I’d never recalled seeing. New informed us in a follow-up email that it’s called a kamele ngoni. It’s a west African string instrument with a very long neck, and that Walker played while sitting as New did  his complementary work on guitar.

 

Hip Abduction Levitate
Justino Lee Walker (left) going to work on the kamele ngoni during The Hip Abduction’s jamming set

 

Hip Abduction levitate
Bringing the bass for Hip Abduction

 

A much anticipated set from Cory Wong took things in a more frenetic direction as the ensemble’s namesake lead guitarist exuded energy in getting the party started. While we didn’t have as strong of a Wellesley angle this year at Levitate as we did last year when Couch played (two members hail from town), the connection here is that Couch will be opening for Wong as his band tours more of the US (Boston’s Roadrunner in November) and then overseas in the fall and into next year. Wong is proving in demand at festivals, making an unusual doubleheader, for example, at the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals later this summer.

“One of the fun things about festivals is that a lot of our friends are here,” Wong said.

Wong’s got a lot going on, even a Youtube variety show, and the same was true during his Levitate performance. “What a day for a 10-piece set,” he said, during one of several interruptions in opening number. As if the stage packed with musicians wasn’t enough, Wong invited Robbie Wulfsohn, lead singer for Ripe, to join him for a raucous rendition of “Synchronicity,” getting the crowd to feel the “lucid, lucid energy.”

A whirling dervish of a guitarist who spans the stage as he plays, Wong is anything but shy about sharing that space as he did numerous times during the set, including for a trumpet solo by Jon Lampley.

Cory Wong band LevitateCory Wong band LevitateCory Wong band Levitate

Feeling a bit exhausted from the last set, I made my way over to Iration, a rocking group with roots in Hawaii and California. They brought plenty of reggae skank guitar rhythm and spirited brass that attracted a big late afternoon crowd to the Style Stage.

Iration played originals like “Time Bomb” and smoothly snuck in jolts of crowd favorites like the White Stripes’  ubiquitous “Seven Nation Army” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Iration levitate
Iration’s Micah Pueschel

 

Levitate
Bringing the brass for Iration

 

I made my way to the smaller Soul Stage for the first time during my outing to sample Joe Samba, a New Hampshire reggae singer who rocks hard. Friends and family packed the front of the stage, taking group photos and singing along with Samba on songs like “Focus” and “Beef.”

Samba scored big points with me when he said this was the festival he always wanted to play as “a 20-year-old nincompoop.” Had to be the first time I’ve heard a performer refer to himself  by that underused and endearing term. And I could totally see Samba reveling in Levitate crowds of the past.

But Samba’s a performer, getting up real close to the mic to spit out lyrics soft or hard, going into head banging guitar mode with bandmates when warranted, and egging on the crowd to wave their hands or dance.

 

Joe Samba Levitate
Joe Samba

 

Reggae band The Elovators, regulars at Levitate, were up next on the big stage. They were ready with the music and the props, including humungous beach balls that security did their best to keep from wiping out the audio equipment and performers (one front row fan said I narrowly missed getting nailed while taking photos from the pit).

Elovators beach balls levitate

 

Elovators Levitate
The Elovators’ Jackson Wetherbee on lead vocals

 

Elovators Levitate

Lead singer Jackson Wetherbee said playing at Levitate is the hometown band’s favorite day of the year when they’re on the bill (“We’re from here!”), and he invited the entire crowd to join him in a toast by raising their beverages and peace signs.

Elovators Levitate
Raising a toast at Levitate

 

One of the most intriguing acts was singer and multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana from Australia. I’d seen the performer put on a heck of a show last year via an Austin City Limits livestream, and looked forward to seeing them do it live. I felt like I’d be in for a one-person version of Khruangbin, which lit up the recent Boston Calling festival with its brand of music cool. Sultana’s 8-year-old bedroom recording of “Jungle” has now amassed 168 million views on Youtube.

Sultana began their set inside a sort of mini studio on stage testing out, and sometimes pantomiming, guitars, drums, keyboards, and a sax. Golden panpipes were also in the mix, as Sultana readied to hit the stage with “Mystik,” where there indeed was “a natural mystic in the air,” as they sang. Sultana hopped through this sound check exercise twice, once after shrugging off a brief power outage on part of the stage.

“Tash plays all the things,” one superfan along the barrier in front of the stage told me as I hunkered down in the photo pit at the start. And while it’s true Sultana could have stayed solo throughout the set, others joined to make the sound even richer.

 

Tash Sultana Levitate

tash

 

Lake Street Dive closed out Day 2 with a bright set heavily featuring songs at the start off their new “Good Together” album. This band’s arrival marked the phasing out of reggae and ska sounds for a combination of pop, jazz, and more powered by lead singer Rachael Price’s unique and rich voice.

Like so many other performers during the festival, Price said this festival was a highlight for band as it sets off on a tour that’s selling out and features impressive venues like Red Rocks and Madison Square Garden.

Lake St Dive Levitate
Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price takes center stage, backed by keyboardist Akie Bermiss and band

 

Levitate Lake Street Dive

 

Thank you to Jess Puchli and the Grandstand Media team, and the Levitate team for their support before and during the festival.

 


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