A Weekend of Rock on the Jersey Shore
ASBURY PARK, N.J. – The Sea.Hear.Now rock festival was destined to be huge from its inception.
The second annual event took place last weekend, Sept. 21-22, on the beach and an adjacent green space in Asbury Park, N.J. The inaugural festival was big. This one was bigger.
I knew that it would be when it sold out by April and rentals in that resort area became all but impossible to find.
Although it meant missing the Blake Shelton concert at Stambaugh Stadium – the biggest show of the year in Youngstown with 20,000-plus in attendance – I couldn’t pass up SHN. The top two bands on my concert bucket list – Dave Matthews Band and Dropkick Murphys – were there.
Sea Hear Now capped ticket sales at 35,000 per day this year, which seemed like about 10,000 more than last year. The key to festival going is to pick the sets you want to see in their entirety and then stake your place early to beat the last-minute crush.
With that strategy, I saw six great concerts and sampled a handful of others with mixed results. In addition to DMB and the Dropkicks, those acts were St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the B-52s, the Struts and Fantastic Negrito.
I also caught a tight and funky, albeit monotonous, set by jam-band Lettuce at the legendary Stone Pony rock club just down the street.
It’s hard to beat a great rock festival on the beach in late September and everybody wants to be there. So yes, there were growing pains, but nothing a few tweaks couldn’t fix.
The grounds were slightly expanded this year, and so were the restroom areas, and the number of food and drink vendors. The lines were manageable.
But I’d still make the festival footprint a little bigger. Parking was nightmarish. The festival might want to look into a shuttle service to distant parking lots. I like the three-stage format in which each has equal weight. But it might be time to add a fourth stage, a smaller one for lesser-known bands. Start times could be staggered to fit them all in.
Enough complaining. Here’s a closer look at the performances:
What a Send-off: Dave Matthews Band’s two-hour festival-closing set Sunday night was worth the price of admission all by itself. A folky Southern rocker with jam-band sensibilities, Matthews is a master of style. His band provided too many memorable moments to mention.
Outside of an occasional silly phrase uttered in a comical voice, Matthews didn’t have much to say between songs. That was OK, because during the silence you could hear the waves crashing on the beach.
Greatest Voice: This one is easy. Paul Janeway, the soulful and Motown-ish vocalist of St. Paul and the Broken Bones almost stole the show. The whole festival.
Clad in a bejeweled cape, Janeway’s shout-singing style, reminiscent of Van Morrison, meshed magnicently with his horn-heavy ensemble. If you saw Janeway on the street, you would never guess he was the man behind that powerful voice, because he looks like an everyday Joe. But he wields his vocal instrument with total authority.
Future Superstars: Well, I’m not sure if The Struts will ever get that far. But this British act led by Luke Spiller are bringing back stadium rock. Spiller’s spiel screams “look at me!” and he has a great vocal range and a penchant for the flamboyant. He might have borrowed a little too much from Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger, but that’s not a bad thing.
The Quintessential Moment: This might have come at about 5 p.m. Sunday, when the glorious B-52s did “Love Shack” and tens of thousands of people couldn’t help but sing along.
The bizarre but fun ’80s pop-rockers always seemed like they watched too many campy sci-fi movies from the 1960s, and that hasn’t changed.
The two queen bees – Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson – in their retrofuturistic go-go attire, took a bow together during “Roam.” To close the show, the inimitable Fred Schneider brought a giant rock lobster on stage to dance to the song that bears its name.
Surprisingly Great: Fantastic Negrito (a.k.a. Xavier Dphrepaulezz) and his band had a funky and bluesy rock sound and a frenetic presence that easily made the leap from rock club to big stage. The very intense Sharon Van Etten was kind of the opposite with her hauntingly strange vocals and industrial grind sound. But she was nonetheless mesmerizing, especially on her melancholic “Seventeen.”
Faux Pas: Van Etten, by the way, also had the best flub of the day. While talking about the great acts yet to come, she mentioned Pat Benatar, who not on the bill. She most likely meant Joan Jett.
Best Rock Band: That would be the Dropkick Murphys. The Boston act does to traditional Irish folk music what Trans-Siberian Orchestra does to Christmas carols. But with the Dropkicks, it comes out punk-rock and not hair metal.
Bands that I Want to See in a Small Venue: Rainbow Kitten Surprise and the Black Pumas.
More Bark Than Bite? The sound was muddy for Low-Cut Connie, the flashy Philly native who stalks the stage and pounds on an upright piano like a young Elton John. He’s got the posturing part down. I’m still not sure about the music, though.
Best Cover Song: Plenty to choose from here. Dispatch gets respect for its version of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up.” The Dropkick Murphy’s covered the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” in memory of Ric Ocasek, who recently passed away. Dave Matthews did an ornery take on Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and gets extra points for mashing together AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and the BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”
Asbury Park is where Bruce Springsteen got his start, and the Lumineers’ threw in some “Thunder Road.”
But for my money, the best cover came from the Struts, who did The Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark,” and even brought a girl from the audience on stage, a la the old Springsteen video that featured a young Courtney Cox.
Guest Appearances: Springsteen didn’t show up this year like he did in 2018 (he celebrated his 70th birthday on Monday). But his sax player, Jake Clemons (nephew of the late Clarence Clemons), played with Dispatch. Fest organizer and rock photographer Danny Clinch, who organized the Blind Melon reunion for SHN, also took the stage with the act.
Best Four Bands in a Row Award: I’ve had a handful of great days at rock festivals, but Day Two of SHN was up there with the best of them. It’s hard to top a day that includes consecutive sets by the B-52s, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the Dropkick Murphys and Dave Matthews Band.
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