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Before I even get to the music, let me state that I can't say enough good things about the Life Is Good Festival. The 2-day event was ostensibly a fund raiser for the Life Is Good Foundation which provides a host of services to underprivileged kids. Add to the good Samaritan vibe the fact that this was the best organized event I've ever attended and, even before you consider the music, you have the makings of an amazing weekend.

I arrived to an army of volunteers in Life Is Good gear, every single one of them hell-bent on making certain that people were enjoying themselves. Through the weekend I was asked, "Are you having fun?" at least once every 15 minutes. It would have quickly become grating had I not believed that these people were really concerned. I'm convinced that if I'd said "No", they would have dragged me off to some romper-room and tickled me into submission.

Life Is Good was really something different. The parking was free. The concessions sold real, relatively healthy food at reasonable prices. You could buy Life Is Good water bottles for 10 bucks with free refills included all weekend. You could buy a beer for only seven bucks.

It was also a family event. There was a station at the gates so parents could tag their kids with a bracelet with their names and cell phone numbers in case they got lost. There were tons of free games for the kids play and other non-musical distractions for the whole family.

The festival was like a super-hip country fair with a killer musical line-up.

Unlike many festivals, the schedule and stages were set up in a way that enabled the crowd to move seamlessly from one to the other without missing a single act while at the same time leaving very little downtime. Those with both more stamina and fortitude than me could have caught 20 acts over 2 days without missing a note.

My Saturday started with local native Eli "Paperboy" Green and The True Loves. They treated the sparse crowd of early arrivals to a set of blue-eyed soul. The band was tight and the crowd was enthusiastic. Eli's shouts and screeches were more Janis Joplin than James Brown but his style was undeniably entertaining and the rough edges lent a measure of authenticity.

The soul revival continued in earnest when the godmother of soul/R&B/gospel, Mavis Staples took the stage. At 71 years old Mavis is still a force. I've seen enough geriatric reunion shows to know the real thing when I see it. The woman was unbelievable. Dressed in an all-black pant suit with a baby blue scarf she commanded everyone's undivided attention for her 60 minute set in the 80 degree, late summer heat. Her backing band maneuvered nimbly from funk-soul grooves to jam-band excursions; at times sounding as much like the Black Crowes as a classic soul band. The highlights of the set were her cover of The Band's "The Weight" and The Staples Singers' 1972 number one hit "I'll Take You There".

If the festival had been a battle of the bands, Ozomatli would have been my choice for the crown. In terms of energy, range, and presence they were untouchable. Their mix of Latin, hip-hop, and rock rhythms, their English and Spanish vocals, and the fearless way they mash them all into a cohesive sound that is all their own is simply amazing. Ozo stormed the stage, all wearing Mexican wrestling masks and proceeded to blast through a couple of tunes, each player dancing/jumping/hopping in giant circles around the stage. As they switched vocalists they likewise switched instruments and the stage became a giant party. Within 30 seconds of taking the stage there wasn't a soul in the crowd, young or old, that wasn't on their feet hopping up and down, shaking their hands in the air for the next hour. It was as if everyone had simply been waiting for the right moment to cut loose. After a series of mellow early-day sets the energy had been building and Ozo brought what was needed to release it.

The party atmosphere continued for the rest of the day. Donovan Frankenreiter brought the energy down to a mellower surfer beach party level with his brand of Jack Johnson meets Jimmy Buffet chill-out music. As the day turned to evening Ziggy Marley And The Melody Makers took the stage to the largest crowd of the day so far. To be perfectly honest Ziggy Marley has always left me a bit cold. His brand of feel-good reggae has always felt generic and contrived. I can't say that I felt much different about this performance until about a third of the way through his set; as a bass and rhythm line came in, Ziggy took three steps back from the mic, clasped his hands in front of him, and bowed his head. As if meditating, he stood there for nearly a minute before raising his face and arms skyward. He then stepped back to the mic and broke into an emotional version of his father's "Get Up, Stand Up". It was as though he could not play his father's music without first paying respect to his spirit. The rest of the set took on a new level of authenticity and emotionalism that, if not entirely changing my opinion of Ziggy, at least allowed me to enjoy the rest of the set from a new perspective.

Day 1 ended with Ben Harper And Relentless7. Ben took the stage with his short-cropped hair and lap guitar while his backing band filled in around him. During the 1,2,3 punch of "I Will Not Be Broken", "Number With No Name" and "Why Must You Always Dress In Black" I was taken by the power Ben commands while sitting in a chair, shredding on a guitar placed across his lap. The passion he invested in every song in the performance made for many magical moments. Other highlights were the ballad "Diamonds On The Inside" and a raucous cover of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker". What an amazing way to end the day.

I walked back to my car with a throng of friendly, polite, smiling festival-goers, already anticipating day 2.

My first set of day 2 was on the main stage with the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. They took the stage in a conga line of drummers and treated the crowd to a set of Afro-jazz tunes. Dressed in traditional garb and playing a variety of modern and traditional instruments they were a true inspiration. Their dancing was as entertaining as their music. A strange combination of herky-jerky break-dance karate moves that I would be hard-pressed to imitate. I was also thoroughly amused by the fact that one of the Refugee guitarists was a dead-ringer for Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.

Suffering from a bit of musical overload I listened to a couple of sets from the Chase Freedom Lounge where I was able to kick back on a comfortable couch and take in some music from a distance. I'd never heard of Toubab Krewe before this festival but was enthralled with their blues/jazz/jam set that featured a variety of instruments that I've never seen or heard of before.

I've always thought OK Go was more hype than substance but I was forced to reassess that opinion as they proceeded to blow the roof off the second stage in the middle of the afternoon. Their indie rock set was way better and far more engaging than I ever would have given them credit for. They were an obvious crowd favorite on Sunday afternoon and had everyone on their feet.

Since I brought the whole family along to day 2 I decided to spend some time in the kids' tent and caught most of Dan Zanes' set. First things first; the kids' tent was utter bedlam. A tangle of beanbag chairs, diaper bags, strollers and lawn chairs. I saw more meltdowns in a half hour than I've experienced in my kids' entire lifetimes. Despite the distractions I was able to enjoy the performance. It's frightening to admit that I'm old enough not only to remember Dan's 80's band The Del Fuegos, but also to have seen them play live. I've listened to his Dan Zanes And Friends albums with my kids since they were born and I've always been impressed with his musicianship. It's one of the things that make him so successful as a children's artist. We adults can enjoy the music along with our kids. The combination of roots, Americana and rock is engaging for everyone. Though I could have done without some of the campy kiddy aping, I suppose he's not performing for my benefit; he's really there for the kids. I thoroughly enjoyed him but have to admit this was the first time I've ever watched a band through the back of a stroller.

Musically, the weekend was a huge success. Add to the mix 2 days of near perfect, late summer, New England weather and you had the perfect festival recipe. Life truly was good in Canton, Mass.

-George Dow

Life is Good Festival
September 11 & 12, 2010
Prowse Farm, Canton, Mass.

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