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A Touch of the Dead [at BeachLife]

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Keller Williams Grateful Gospel leads the congregation Sunday morning at BeachLife Festival. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

by Edith Johnson

Roots of Creation’s Grateful Dub kicked off a weekend with a Grateful Dead thruline. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

The snow was just starting to melt in the Wasatch Mountains on Sunday night. But I was far from my new home, back in my old one, sun-kissed and salty-haired with blistered feet from barefoot dancing as I took in the official BeachLife Festival after party at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach. Keller Williams was picking out his little bit country and a whole lot of funky version of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” Maybe it was the reggae lilt. Maybe it was the smell of limes and beer, or a warm hug from an old friend. I just couldn’t stop smiling. South Bay had done it. And this was the perfect end to a great beginning.

The inaugural BeachLife Festival couldn’t have been named anything else. With the majority of attendees rolling up (literally) on skates, bikes, and boards, and the laidback, toes-in-the-sand vibe inside the oceanfront, palm tree dotted venue near Redondo Beach Pier, “beach life” was on vibrant display all weekend—with the soundtrack to match.

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Bruce Hornsby at BeachLife Festival. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

The live music lineup at BeachLife didn’t try to do it all. And it didn’t need to. What it did was provide a superbly curated music-by-the-beach experience. It showed that beach music isn’t just one thing. Not surf, not reggae, not punk. It’s about what connects us to the setting: The healing energy of the ocean. The magic of a double rainbow. A tropical hued sunset. Relaxation. Retreat. Reconnection. What the BeachLife artists shared in common is that they delivered that vibe.

Grateful Dead frontman (and scuba diving enthusiast) Jerry Garcia had a deep, abiding love for the ocean and marine life. So it felt perfectly right that the Dead songbook made multiple appearances throughout the weekend. Despite the fact that the Dead once jammed with The Beach Boys (see Fillmore East, April 27, 1971), they probably aren’t the first group that comes to mind when we think of beach music. But they’re inarguably one of the most good vibration-y bands ever.

The first Dead-inspired set of the festival came from New Hampshire’s reggae-rock outfit Roots of Creation. They kicked things off at the High Tide (main) stage day one with a smokin’ “Shakedown Street” opener, followed by several covers from their Grateful Dub tribute album including a well-timed “Fire on the Mountain” drenched in the hot rays of the midafternoon sun.

On day three, Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel revealed the total validity of the oft-repeated Deadhead mantra, “Never miss a Sunday show.” With a soulful “Samson and Delilah” opener, an exuberant “St. Stephen,” the surprise debut of “I Need a Miracle,” and a guest turn from Bay Area guitar hero (and Terrapin Crossroads staple) Stu Allen, there was much to praise about the Gospel.       

Former Grateful Dead keyboardist Bruce Hornsby and his band The Noisemakers took the High Tide stage Friday, filling the air with heady, transcendent music that didn’t reference the Dead in any specific way but did show Hornsby to be the masterful musician and innovative classical-jazz-meets-experimental-jam man we always new him to be. Like many other artists on the lineup, Hornsby has been in the game a long time, but a “nostalgia act” he is not—he continues to reinvent and thrill and put out timeless tunes.

Bob Weir sits in with Slightly Stoopid at BeachLife Festival. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

As the sun began to set on day one, San Diego–based reggae rockers Slightly Stoopid closed out the beachside Low Tide stage with their “Acoustic Roots Set,” welcoming the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir on stage for a gorgeous, soaring version of the Dead’s own “Franklin’s Tower” and crowd-fueled singalong of Tom Petty’s  “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Shortly after, it was Weir’s turn at the helm, as he took the High Tide stage with his band Wolf Bros for the headlining set.

After an enthusiastic introduction by beloved Dead roadie “Big” Steve Parish, Bob Weir & Wolf Bros wasted no time dusting off old classics with beautiful versions of “Jack Straw” and “Cassidy,” which felt destined for sundown at the beach. A wild foray into “The Other One” showcased Weir’s singular phrasing and legendary rhythm guitar chops, highlighted against the rock-solid groove of drummer Jay Lane and iconic producer/upright bassist Don Was. As night fell, the trio slipped into a mellow and introspective “Standing on the Moon” before picking back up the energy with “The Music Never Stopped” and closing out the set with a two-song encore featuring Chris Robinson and guitarist Jackie Greene sitting in on fan favorite  “Not Fade Away” followed by an uplifting “Ripple” to sweetly usher the crowd off into the night.

When my plane touched back down in Salt Lake, the post-festival blues started to sink in. But it wasn’t so bad. I still felt the glow of a weekend well spent with the songs I most love and some new ones to search out. I thought of that crazy cover photo from Joe Walsh’s But Seriously, Folks, where he’s at an underwater café with his table and meal floating away. And then I heard Williams singing that lyric, “I can’t complain but sometimes I still do.” I can’t complain about the festival being over. I know it will be back. BeachLife’s been good to me so far.   

Edith Johnson can be reached at TheFestivalGirl.com. 

Bob Weir and the Wolf Bros at BeachLife Festival. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom


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