Southern Shore: Bonaroo Meets Millville
After seeing the Southern Shore Music Festival in action last year, I looked forward to returning to the Cumberland County Fairgrounds for another go. Last year’s event gave me the impression that the festival organizers did a great job in selecting performers – many who are largely unknown, up-and-coming artists in the Americana genre – and I was curious to see if that impression would hold true a second time. It did. The festival included performances by Patty Blee, Joel Plaskett and The Emergency, Sharon Little, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band, Justin Townes Earle, Deer Tick, and Leon Russell. While the festival hyped the performances by two members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Leon Russell and Jai Johanny Johanson – better known a Jaimoe -- who was one of the founding members of the Allman Brothers), the up-and-coming acts are the backbone of the festival. Two such acts (Justin Townes Earle and Deer Tick) performed at the legendary Bonnaroo festival just a few weeks earlier.
For whatever reason, the festival just felt a bit different this year. I didn’t notice any signs for the festival along the highway or even at the County Fairgrounds entrance; there wasn’t a program or even a schedule anywhere for people to see; and the area in front of the stage seemed like an outdoor listening room rather than your typical music festival setting. Rows of people were obediently sitting in their chairs soaking up the music along with the intense rays from the sun. Perhaps, it was the heat, but people didn’t really move around very much. There wasn’t your typical festival zaniness by any stretch – no Frisbee tossing, no beach balls floating in the air, or even any Dead Head dancing. In fact, several of the artists throughout the day couldn’t help but notice the ultra-relaxed setting, calling the crowd “very attentive” and “well behaved.”
As expected, the event featured stellar performances. Highlights for me included the sets by Jersey girl Patty Blee (who reminds me of a brighter, more up-beat Bonnie Raitt – one that didn’t earn a ragged voice from years of smoking and drinking); Joel Plaskett and The Emergency from Nova Scotia, Canada (who earned the first, and I believe, only encore of the day); Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band (who was as good as the hype); Justin Townes Earle (who showed moments of pure brilliance and left me scratching my head as to how he could stand performing in a suit while temperatures hovered in the 90s); and Sharon Little (who not only played a song she wrote for Robert Plant but had songs that wouldn’t have seen out of place on Plant’s Now and Zen album from the eighties).
The festival vibe may have stemmed from a slight uncertainty in the festival’s purpose. While most of the day featured artists people will be talking about more in the next few years than right now, the headliner was a legend from a largely different era. Even though Leon Russell released an album with Elton John last year, it’s been a long time since anyone could easily name one of his own songs. His legend largely stemmed from his work on songs released by others – several of which were performed on Saturday. The musicians in the band were all great, but hearing songs we’ve heard forever like “Wild Horses” reminded me of being at Great Adventure for a rock and roll revue. It just seemed more than a bit out of place capping off a festival of new music with a set largely comprised of classic rock hits. Although to be fair, the final few songs were the only ones to get the crowd up out of their lawn chairs to dance a bit.
All in all, it was a great day of music despite the heat. While tucked away deep in South Jersey, the festival is extremely easy to get to. If you’re a fan of new music, you should think about heading down for next year’s festival, you’re bound to see artists you’ll be talking about in years to come.
Some of my favorite moments include:
Seeing Justin Townes Earle backstage where a large tattoo “Townes” sprawled across his neck only to be covered by a suit later on as he took to the stage.
A nice Spinal Tap-like moment when Sharon Little asked me how to get from where she was to the stage. With her hair dyed purple, I didn’t even recognize her as she’s got blonde hair in most of her photos.
Catching only part of a quote by Deer Tick that may be one of the greatest out-of-context quotes in history… “It smells better in the van…”
A guy’s t-shirt with the words, "Putting the love in your mouth" promoting a local restaurant.
And seeing not one but two groups play an aberration of hacky sack by tossing the ball gently in the air with their hands rather than via their feet.