For me, I suppose the festival began at noon at the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale. I valeted my car there and waited along with a dozen or so other folks bound for Fort Lauderdale Beach and the two-day, country-heavy music festival. In their bathing suits and bikinis, and I in my garish Hawaiian shirt and straw fedora, the trolley-waiting crowd clashed heavily with the people arriving to shop at the Galleria, or have lunch at the high-end eateries that ring the shops. Great clouds of smoke wafted up from the trolley crowd as the rain sprinkled down.
The trolleys were supposed to run every 20 minutes, but there appeared to be a backlog, likely due to all of these festivalgoers, with their bags and beach chairs and various other accoutrements, all of which took up a great deal of room on the trolleys, shrinking capacity and turning the pace of the Las Olas-to-beach trolley system from slow to glacial. The rain never let up as we stood and waited, but the last thunderstorm had passed overhead already, and no one allowed the rain to get their spirits down.
Despite the heavy wait, I arrived at the festival site just in time to catch the final song of Gloriana, the opening act of day one. Media entered into the VIP area near the main stage. Free booze everywhere. Dangerous business. Tito’s Rum had set up an Airstream trailer in the VIP area, with a giant Jenga set and a cornhole game out in front. Four rednecks, complete with trucker caps, rumpled cowboy hats, and almost-unwearable, ancient Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts played cornhole and gave the entire scene an air of authenticity. Nearby, a bar dished out two kinds of beer — draft or can, though the only actual option was Landshark or Landshark. Which is fine, of course — Landshark Lager was a big-time sponsor of the event. I could just make out a similar bar beyond the gates to the “Super VIP” section, but the press was not allowed inside that area.
I fired up a cigarillo as I remarked to the guard at the entrance to Super VIP, “So, what goes on in there? Rich guy orgies? Monkey knife fights?”
He just laughed. “You have to buy a ticket to know,” he said.
Fair enough. I had other things to do than attend the alleged monkey knife fights held in the Super VIP area.
G. Love and Special Sauce played the Tortuga stage, the same one as Gloriana, at the south end of the festival grounds. Strangely, I cannot recall ever being at a festival that did not include G. Love in the lineup. It’s almost as though he has played every festival since the second Bonnaroo. G. Love is always with us, like God or the devil or this damned rain, which just now seemed to finally be letting up as G. Love opened his set with “I-76,” his homage to the Sixers, the titular highway, and his beloved hometown of Philadelphia.
By the time Michael Franti and Spearhead came on on the Sunrise stage, on the opposite side of the festival grounds from Tortuga stage, the rain had passed by and the afternoon had become one of those gorgeous, sunny, South Florida spring days that remind you why you put up with the scorching summers. It was a perfect beach day. Franti’s road crew busily launched massive beach balls into the crowd as the band played “The Sound of Sunshine.” About two dozen of the things, each at least two feet in diameter, bounced around the crowd. I took a couple of shots to the head, but these are the sort of risks we accept as part of the music-journalism trade.
“The Sound of Sunshine” was the band’s fourth rave-up, fast-paced reggae tune in a row, and they brought the pace back down a bit with “Life Is Better With You,” one of those joyous, just-happy-to-be-alive, mid-tempo tunes that Franti does so incredibly well. He followed that up with another example, his big hit, “Say Hey (I Love You),” during which he encouraged any children in the crowd to come up onstage, and even had one of the younger kids take guest vocals on one of the choruses.
But that crowd participation doesn’t seem unusual to anyone who has seen Franti in concert before. Indeed, during this one-hour set, he also had two people onstage to take over guitar work (or at least pretend to) as Franti’s “Yell Fire” broke down into the beginning riffage of Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” Franti also waded out into the crowd at one point, and appeared at the far end of the crowd on a riser at another. I can’t think of many major artists who do as much to facilitate direct contact with their audiences, and it’s clear that Franti’s audience loves him for it.
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite appeared on the same stage an hour later, everyone in the band clad all in black, looking more like the road crew than the entertainment. Harper’s sets are typically genre-hopping mishmashes that put Harper’s chameleon guitar work on full display — blues, pop, rock, one song into the other, effortlessly seamless, every time. But Musselwhite is a blues harmonica player — scratch that, he is the blues harmonica player. That forced Harper into a bluesy box from which he could not escape. It was a great set for what it was, but it was a rare example of two great things becoming less than the sum of their parts.
About two songs in, Donovan Frankenreiter, having just completed a set at the nearby Sunset stage, slipped into the VIP area, though in his denim shirt, red pants, black fedora and red Turkish slippers, he stood out a bit from the rest of the crowd, enough so that Harper spotted him from onstage and said, “What are you doing out there? You should be up here!” The crowd roared, and a security guard showed Frankenreiter the set list, which included an upcoming cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Frankenreiter spent the rest of his time wandering the VIP area, asking, “Does anyone know ‘When the Levee Breaks?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
I sang a couple of bars for him.
“Yeah, but what key’s it in?” he asked. “I gotta do it with Ben Harper, I just need the key, you know?”
“F, I think,” I answered.
He blinked in surprise. “F? Really?” he asked, likely because my singing was in no way close to being in the key of F.
“Yeah, but don’t quote me on that,” I answered. (Side note: I was right. It’s in F.)
The last I saw him, he had found a set of headphones and was watching the song on YouTube on somebody’s phone, bobbing his head along and nodding confidently.
But I never saw him play. A quick stop for dinner and then off to the Tortuga stage for Kenny Chesney. The last time I saw him, he was opening for Alabama at the Missouri State Fair. This would’ve been about 15 years ago or so, around the same time he hit no. 1 on the country charts for the first time with “She’s Got It All,” two or three years before the Greatest Hits album that marked the end of the first part of his career, four or five years before No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem, which marked he beginning of Part Two of the Artistic Life of Kenny Chesney, in which our hero trades in his cattle for a flight to the Caribbean, tears the sleeves off his shirt, finds a powerful rum drink, sits down on the beach, leans his back against a palm tree and pulls his hat down over his eyes.
He has, suffice to say, become a different person since opening for Alabama all those years ago, and his show is similarly different. He is brash now, ballsy, a consummate performer who, it must be said, seems to have lost a little of his common touch. But he was a perfect headliner for the Tortuga Music Festival, country with a beachy vibe, which could describe either Chesney or the festival itself.
OK, that’s it. Off to day 2 — Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Avett Brothers, Eric Church, Jake Owen. Should be a hell of a good time.