“Life is good, ya’ll!” proclaimed legendary gospel singer Mavis Staples as she wiped her brow with a towel. Immediately launching into the civil rights anthem “I’ll Take You There,” you couldn’t help but feel like you were experiencing something special. Glancing at the 12,000-strong crowds at the inaugural Life is Good Festival, it was easy to notice that something was different: a third of the audience was children under 12, a true anomaly for a full-scale music fest. In all, the festival exuded a very relaxed, come-as-you-are vibe that, as one artist put it, “did everything just right.”
As I wandered onto Prowse Farm, the site of the festival, I was overwhelmed by its magnitude. I could hear the Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter” drifting from one of the two stages. Booths lined the perimeter, hawking seed-spitting contests, a “musical instrument petting zoo,” and plenty of food stalls offering organic, locally grown food. After getting my bearings, the first set I was able to catch was by Staples, a soul singer and civil rights activist for almost 60 years. She delivered a chill – inducing set, belting her songs with passion and fervor. She led the crowd, which was primarily made up of families, in a full-scale sing-along to “I Belong to the Band – Hallelujah.” Her low, throaty voice fit the laidback mood of the day perfectly, but Staples was most brilliant when she unleashed earth-shattering high notes on the crowd. Someone next to me shouted something about Staples’ ability to trounce Aretha Franklin in a sing-off, and I couldn’t help but agree. For a woman of 70, her voice has been remarkably well preserved. Her set was a heart-warming revelation.
Staggering the sets on the two different stages was a smart move, as it allowed for a pleasant migration back and forth between acts. It was a surprisingly civil atmosphere; maybe it’s because I’m so used to seeing concerts in pushy, crowded New York venues, but the ease of the task was welcome. After Staples’ set had finished, I wandered over to hear folk-rocker Donavon Frankenreiter play his biggest hit, “Life, Love, and Laughter.” His abbreviated set was a very mellow one; a cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” was smooth and laidback. After grabbing a samosa, I hopped over to the main stage for Ozomatli, a Los Angeles-based band whose sound is best described as Latin-rap-rock. For the first time all day, the crowd was on their feet dancing as the band jammed through songs like the James Brown influenced “45” and the horn-drenched rap “Saturday Night.” I ducked out early to get a good spot for indie-rockers Dr. Dog, who also had the crowd moving with hits like the sprawling “Hang On” and “Mirror, Mirror.” The crowd knew (and sang quite loudly) all of the words, much to the delight of the band.
Finally, it was time for the set I was most looking forward to: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. The future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, originally from New Hampshire, exude a Classic-Southern rock sound that fit perfectly with Prowse Farm as a backdrop. “Are you ready to move?” the enchanting Potter squealed with a puckish glint in her eye as she bounded on stage. The band’s incendiary but condensed set (just 11 songs!) was without a doubt the best of the day. Over the course of just an hour, Potter redefined what a concert experience should be about in its most perfect form. The band showed off its immense skill in transitioning smoothly between sexy rock anthems and slower, lush ballads. On heart-racing tracks like “Hot Summer Night,” Potter seductively pranced around the stage while effortlessly singing like a rock-goddess. The notes she’s able to hit and hold are stunning and certainly unmatched by any female on the Top-40 charts today. On the slow but heart wrenchingly beautiful “Apologies,” Potter took her place at her organ and let her transcendent voice carry the song to unimaginable heights. After an hour had passed, Potter took the microphone and addressed the audience with a wink: “I’m a little embarrassed to be singing this, since my father is standing right over there, and it’s the naughtiest song ever!” With a spine tingling growl, Potter strapped on her guitar and the Nocturnals tore into their biggest hit, the playfully sensuous “Paris (Ooh La La).” I know I speak for everyone at Prowse Farm when I say sadness swept over the crowd as the band slowly crept off stage to thunderous applause.
After catching a few songs by Ben Harper and the Relentless 7, I decided to call it a night, because nothing was going to top Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ fiery set. What I did notice, though, is how easy it was to overlook all of the corporate sponsorship in favor of everything else the day offered: a beautiful space in which to watch some fantastic bands play their hearts out for a good cause. If its first year managed to be this successful, the Life is Good Festival should look forward to many more incredible years as the best music event in the Northeast.