By Ray Chelstowski
I have long contended that Seaside Park in Bridgeport is one of the nicest beaches in Connecticut. The sand, the shoreline, and the views are spectacular. Founded in the 1860s by the sizeable land donations made by American showman P.T. Barnum, the space has had a long history of providing music to the public. For years free concerts were offered there every Sunday. Then in the 1930s, these concerts for “working people” moved to Thursday. They became part of the New Deal program Federal Project Number One that helped employ out of work musicians.
Over the years various acts would make random appearances at the park, always putting public consumption ahead of profit. This continued into the late 1990s with Gathering of the Vibes, a festival inspired by the Grateful Dead that began in New York and then moved to Seaside Park. It was a four-day experience with camping, music and an arts & crafts festival. The Vibes welcomed rock, jam, funk, folk, bluegrass, reggae and R&B acts and the lineup always worked. It really was a “gathering” of different interests and outlooks that would come together in a wildly popular and creative experience. It was a festival that enjoyed a great run, but that would end in 2017.
Since then, demand for bringing live music back to Seaside Park in a festival format has not waned. Finally, Founders Entertainment (the group behind Governor’s Ball on Randall’s Island in New York City) were able to come to terms with the city of Bridgeport and assemble a roster of 25 acts, secure a dozen sponsors and lock in over 40 local food and beverage vendors to pull off what they would call Sound on Sound.
“It’s been a goal of ours to introduce a world-class musical festival to Connecticut; the place where I grew up and where co-founder Tom Russell and I spent our high school years together,” Jordan Wolowitz of Founders Entertainment said. “Sound on Sound is a 2-day event that we’ve curated for a community that we personally feel so close to. As a Connecticut resident myself, I am proud to present a festival that celebrates exceptional music, hand-selected local food and libations, and outdoor fun spent at the beautiful Seaside Park.” Founder’s Entertainment secured a 20-year lease on the property so this is literally, just the beginning.
The grounds included two stages, side by side, that were synchronized so that there was no down time between acts, and that the space could be optimized for broader attendance. There were also playgrounds for families, a craft beer and sports hall, a wine grove, and numerous VIP-only locations where patrons willing to spend thousands of dollars could enjoy exclusive access to a more refined concert experience.
Goldmine was there both days to take in the music, the “vibes”, and help usher in a new era of live music at the beach in Bridgeport. There were some notable moments over the weekend. These are just a few:
Best Festival Opener: Funky Dawgz
No one can kick off a party like Funky Dawgz. This brass-based band from Connecticut got the crowd moving after the festival’s rocky day one start. Fans were literally running from the security check point to get close to the action on stage. Bags were dropped to the ground and bodies started to groove. Few bands seem to have as much fun on stage as “the Dawgz” and they engaged the crowd with call and response, big bottomed-bass, powerful drums and full-flavored, front and center brass. I’m sure folks heard those horns all of the way across the Sound in Long Island!! Whether on their own, or complementing other acts, “the Dawgz” always deliver! This is the next Tower of Power, and that’s “What is Hip!”
Best Guitar Work: Jenny Lewis
Nashville guitarist Megan McCormick delivered a remarkable wire to wire performance for Jenny Lewis, largely on a hollow body electric guitar that seemed so perfectly cast against this seaside setting. Her sound was sterling, tubular and firm. She focused her playing on tone and left the flash for more selective moments that would have made Skunk Baxter and his Steely Dan cohorts smile with pride.
Most Endearing Performance: Jade Bird
U.K. singer-songwriter Jade Bird may have been the most genuinely grateful performer of the weekend. There’s an authenticity about her that is contagious and a playfulness that is really endearing. But when she sings her power-house voice deploys lyrics about revenge and anger that make you sit up, take note and behave. It’s a compelling contradiction, presented with balanced charm and conviction, often like the embrace of a friend who can always keep things light when the world gets real heavy.
Most Electrifying Performance: The Head and the Heart
The Head and the Heart arrive on stage with a wealth of talents. Three lead singers, each very capable on guitar and keys, and a rhythm section and keyboardist that are the belt that holds the entire bottom up. Their songs are largely anthemic and that sound arrived at just the right time, as rain seemed likely at any minute. They applied little banter from the stage instead engaging the audience with songs that everyone seemed to know, playing to that itch by tossing vocals back and forth with the crowd. This is a plane that caught air and stayed at thirty thousand feet for a solid 45 minutes, fast landing like a fighter jet on a fishing boat. Like that, it was over.
Most Underserved Band: The Revivalists
The Revivalists were a last minute replacement and frankly a great get! This New Orleans-based band put forward one of the most powerful performances of the weekend, demonstrating a swagger and rock sensibility that has a footing tied directly to albums like Exile on Main St. and Every Picture Tells a Story. Their music is greasy with grit and old school grandeur. Lead singer David Shaw not only has a rock ready voice; he’s a consummate showman. That’s why it was so disappointing to see his vocals and the horn work of Rob Ingraham and Michael Girardot be abandoned by the person working the sound board. The top end of the sound spectrum was absent for almost the entire set. This production oversight made what should have been a festival highlight fall a bit flat. (Poor sound management was frankly an issue on the Sunset Stage for most of the day).
Best Cover Performance: Trousdale
Trousdale is a female band birthed out of USC’s infamous music program and consists of Quinn D’Andrea, Georgia Greene, and Lauren Jones. Their pop-driven songs and soaring harmonies define a sound that is often compared to bands like HAIM. But Trousdale frankly has more punch, power and outward fun. They delivered a version of Neil Young’s “Old Man” that put all of their talents on full display, not the least of which is song arrangement. The “Trousdale” version gently unfolded and with ease took air, gliding across Seaside Park with stature and style.
Best Tribute: Stevie Nicks
It’s widely-known that Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty had a special connection, both personally and professionally. So it was touching to hear her pay tribute to her late friend and express it musically through such a beautiful rendition of the Petty classic “Free Falling.” On a side note, seeing Stevie perform with long-time sideman Waddy Wachtel and backup singers Sharon Celani and Lori Nicks (who’ve been with Stevie throughout most of her career) was particularly special.
Most Engaged Audience: Trampled By Turtles
Trampled by Turtles was the fourth band to take the stage on Saturday; and just like that it seemed like the entire lawn filled with fans. This was the first act to take the stage that came with a built in fan-base and it was evident from the moment the first strings were plucked or stroked. Trampled set a bar with this performance and the energy of their string-driven set I’m sure still stays with everyone who stood before that stage. It does with me. These cats were all business and that business jammed!
Biggest Head-Turning Performance: Band of Horses
Band of Horses fans were easy to spot in this sea of 30,000 concert goers. Many came with inflatable horses that dotted the field throughout the day — before and after their favorite band took to the stage. Those familiar with Horses’ acoustic live release from the Ryman know that this is a group that can make their music small and intimate. At Seaside Park they took things in a different direction. The band was bright and brash, guitar-heavy with trademark vocals that cut through the noise like a knife. This band rocks and they kicked up sand at the very moment the festival needed to drop into gear.
Most Missed Performance: The Main Squeeze
Early in the day on Sunday The Main Squeeze took the stage. They may as well be heir apparent to Living Colour; providing R&B-driven rock and roll that is equally infused by sounds psychedelic and progressive. Too few people got to witness their work which is unfortunate. Their set was powerful and precise, and the guitar solos were fiery and fierce.
Favorite Discovery: Cameroons
Nashville’s Cameroons feature two guitars, keys and an unconventional approach to percussion. Together they presented music that had tremendous amounts of funk, great depth, and dazzling technique especially on keys and the Telecaster. They quickly won over the audience with an authenticity that was contagious. Look for an interview with them here at Natural Funk Projekt sometime soon.
Biggest Let Down: Caamp
Caamp is a band that is consistent and steady, staying largely between the lines. That’s why when they decided to cut into Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” it stopped everyone in their tracks. It was a brilliant moment that didn’t last long and prompted folks to wonder what other tricks this band has up their sleeves. More of that please.
Clearly there were many musical moments made this weekend in Bridgeport. But the festival’s first year delivered its share of missteps and rookie on-field errors. After the first day, social media came alive with hundreds of complaints about the event being oversold, the prices of everything being beyond reach, the lack of food and rest facilities, the inability to walk stage to stage because of blanket and chair “lawn grabs”, the lack of lighting at night, and a poor traffic plan for end of day departures (it took some three hours to reach the highway which was less than a mile from the park). All of this appeared to be avoidable and a fair amount was remedied overnight. Except of course for food and beverage pricing (beer was $16 a can, hot dogs and hamburgers sold for almost $20, and daily parking was priced at $75). This largely kept the music from being accessible to “working class adults” as the park had done in its past.
These things didn’t touch the talent who tended to arrive, perform, and quickly depart. That’s good because the lineup for the festival was first-rate and promoters should hope to get many of them back on stage this time next year. The key to attending any festival of this kind is to have a plan when you walk through the gates and be nimble when things unravel. Festival mechanics can begin to quickly rattle but in the end, the show will always go on, especially in Bridgeport where live music venues continue to expand. Hopefully Sound on Sound learned some important lessons that will help inform how things unfold in 2023. But in the end the music hit the right note and it will be fun to see next year’s “sail” take shape and catch air.