The ocean breeze of Asbury Park in September hits in a new way when you’ve been breathing through a mask for so long. That’s one reason why the long-awaited Sea.Hear.Now Festival on Saturday/Sunday (September 18-19th, 2021) felt so freeing and rewarding. Another obvious reason: people really missed people. The vibe among the vaccinated/negative-tested festivalgoers this weekend was conscientious, kind, and excited. Given the huge crowds on both days and the open-air beach setting, it was uplifting to see all the sanitizing, masking, and please-don’t-talk-right-into-my-face body language going down. It’s impossible to be perfectly germ-free in that environment, but the unison effort felt good: solidarity as we all tried to have a safe and memorable weekend together. In addition to Sea.Hear.Now’s extra-friendly staff and security, the fest nailed it from an environmental standpoint: Surfrider Foundation’s Rock & Recycle program incentivized many to carry around bags and collect recyclables for prizes. The main reason we loved Sea.Hear.Now ‘21: this lineup kicked ass on both days. Where was all the overprocessed EDM and laptop DJing and auto-tuned whining? Nowhere, man! And that’s rare for modern fests. Even performances that were outside of our go-to genres of rock and punk were musically rich.
We’re glad Sea.Hear.Now is in the hands of photographer Danny Clinch, who is well attuned to which artists create the best live experiences. The bands that ended up being the biggest highlights on day one were the ones decorating so many cute outfits. The faithful jammers were a walking museum of Pearl Jam merch history, including shirts from their last show at Boston’s Fenway Park in 2018. The black-clothed wölfpäck was easy to spot as we stomped through sand in grungy boots to reach the rail for Reignwolf. There were lots of tour tees from The Avett Brothers worn by those chill, long-haired dudes who look like they’re in The Avett Brothers. And clearly, everyone else was just trying to look as cool as Patti Smith. Between all the rocking, it was rad to see competing surfers take on Jersey’s choppy waves, then watch the winners return holding big checks in their name. Our Saturday started with bright and bouncy reggae thanks to Hirie, who got the dancing going early even in the blazing sun. As we got used to the built-in workout of running around a beach festival, we caught an energetic set from Briston Maroney. We also got some down-home tunes from NJ locals Jackson Pines, who brought Danny Clinch onstage for a nice reedy harmonica solo. Reignwolf has a unique way of coaxing everyone to focus in, so it was really fun seeing his sound drop jaws across a big festival crowd. Jordan Cook was already getting screams while testing mics and racing around to set up. Cook would soon explain that he, drummer Joseph Braley, and original bassist David ‘Stitch’ Rapaport had barely arrived in time. “We just got into town moments ago. The fact that we made this set: I can’t believe it,” said Cook without specifying why. The enigmatic rocker inadvertently creates new mysteries around his music all the time – including one that even he couldn’t explain. A gash on his arm sent blood dripping all over his guitar just a few songs in.
Cook laughed as he doused his elbow in water, splashing the rest of the bottle on us. It happened sometime in the beginning, maybe even when their scorching “Lonely Sunday” opened the fest set. After teasing some of “In The Dark” (played in full at the late show), Reignwolf surprised us with the very rare “C’mon C’mon,” a gritty riff-driven song about Mexico. We don’t believe they’ve dusted that off since they toured with Black Sabbath in 2014, so Cook is clearly set on defying expectations with his song choices. Up next was the addictive “Over and Over,” which he called “one of my favorite ones off our latest record,” followed by a fiery “Palms to the Sky” – before which he noted, “When I think of the beach, I always think of this song.” For the shouted request of “Old Man,” Cook made some adjustments. “Can we get this bass drum nice and boomy out there? This one? So they feel it in the heart. Little bit more, little bit more…right in the heart, right in the heart,” he repeated. During that wölf classic, he tore into a savage guitar solo that kept the Sea.Hear.Now crowd enthralled. Newer song “Monster” raged next, followed by the hypnotic “Keeper” from Hear Me Out – a whole new chance for him to stretch out and solo hard with the one-of-a-kind guitar tone he achieves. After an unfamiliar banger, closer “Are You Satisfied?” was like gasoline on the flames, rounding out an unforgettable show as the sun beat the sand and the waves crashed in view. And we’re never fully satisfied, but we got so much that we craved – from the mic cord around Cook’s neck to his wide-eyed elation.
In some back-to-back badassery, it was beautiful to hear the godmother of punk, Patti Smith, get the massive swells of applause she deserves. Looking and clearly feeling fantastic, the iconic songstress brought her edgy and effortless delivery in a sixteen-track set that kicked off with “Grateful.” In between nailing her own hits, she also concocted cool covers of “Blame It on the Sun” by Stevie Wonder and “One Too Many Mornings” by Bob Dylan. Smith, all smiles and brimming with positive energy, also treated us to some captivating poetry like Perfect Moon, an accurate description of the sky all weekend. Her awesome encore of “People Have the Power” would later reappear in a nod from Pearl Jam (read on). Even more of Smith’s sweet yet tough personality came through when she kindly asked everyone to stop throwing frisbees. “Excuse me. I’d like you to do me a favor and not throw those things around. I mean, I’m sure they’re fun, but go on the beach and do it. I feel like I’m being invaded by razor sharp flying saucers,” she laughed, “So, thank you!” The contrast between this frisbee moment and the next one on Sunday – when Billy Idol sent dozens of discs spinning into outstretched palms, as if wielding ninja throwing stars – was an interesting reveal of differing punk preferences.
The irony about the much-discussed scheduling conflict – Dr. Dog’s hit-laden, all-smiles farewell tour vs. the jammy improv of Connecticut quintet Goose – is that many sustenance-fueled people like me ended up stuck in a food line by then. It was the only chance to grab dinner before the headliners, and the limited food and water stands were isolated to one spot that was far from the two bigger stages. This is our only constructive note: more water refill stations would have allowed us to catch more music. Ample water would have also reduced all that cottonmouth hacking, which would have been a funny celebration of legalization if the sound of coughing wasn’t so unsettling. There was so much random fainting during Pearl Jam – causing the ever-caring Eddie Vedder to stop several times – it seems that stamina is low for some folks after lockdown life. Combined with the heat and the fear of losing your imminent view of McCready, it’s easy to see why some fans were collapsing. But whether they were hopping the barrier in a confused chemical trip, or just dizzy from dehydration, the security crew handled every situation sweetly.
If you’ve ever listened to the soothing Americana sound of The Avett Brothers and wondered how it translates live, we’ve got to say, they really put the rock into folk rock. The bluegrass North Carolina band seemed to grow on each newcomer right away, prompting waves of clapping and cheering across the beach. Their sixteen-song set opened with “Satan Pulls the Strings” before they started jumping all over their discography, enlivening the crowd with their high-energy harmonization. The strong voices of the multitalented founding brothers, Scott and Seth Avett, reverberated beautifully in the outdoor setting. The Avett Brothers embellished their sonorous set by covering mountain ballad “Old Joe Clark” and “I’ve Endured” by Ola Belle Reed. They pulled in lots of applause with their quick chanting on “Talk on Indolence,” a song that deeply inspires one to memorize each word for future shouting opportunities. Fast hits like that made the rapid work of the American Sign Language interpreter up front all the more impressive. The ASL visuals were also great later on during Pearl Jam, answering the mystifying question: what does the sound of a McCready guitar solo look like?
One neat facet of Pearl Jam’s triumphant return was watching so many attendees come in fresh and get blown away. PJ chasers like us can compare favorite setlists all day, but it’s way more fun getting to see others have their first earth-shattering live experience with Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron, and Boom Gaspar, who also welcomed former RHCP guitarist Josh Klinghoffer up for some jamming. It was even neater how Pearl Jam visibly hooked everyone with such a gutsy start, debuting three songs in a row from their prescient 2020 record, Gigaton. ”Dance of the Clairvoyants” was a clever choice for an opener; they may have brought in some younger ears with its modern synthy sound. On that rager, bassist Jeff Ament wowed as he alternated between 12-string guitar and keys, while rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard switched to bass-grooving with an aptly groovy bass face. The first “Quick Escape” to grace this planet was pure McCready perfection and arguably the sickest part of the set (rock sick, not icky sick). This led into the next live debut, the inspiring “Seven O’Clock.” Then, as if to remind everyone, guys, we’re fuckin’ PEARL JAM, they tore into “Corduroy.” It was the perfect build-up for something unexpected and utterly gripping: a “Present Tense” that caused dancing, tears, and swaying for miles. “Never Destination” was the next live debut from Gigaton, and there’s a special place in our hearts for all those who were also shouting “more denial!” at the top of their lungs.
Between all that fire, Eddie Vedder said something very inspiring. “I was gonna tell you a quick story about my daughter because I’m old enough to have a daughter who is now bringing back homework that is like…calculus. And I told her I can help with that because I’m really good with numbers.” Vedder grinned and clarified, “I’m good with phone numbers, so I called a tutor, so I was able to help her out that way. But my real problem lately has been with English, and that’s because I’ve had such a difficult time thinking about how to communicate the question that we have: why aren’t we able to come together more closely when we’re faced with such huge challenges like climate change and the pandemic? As a country and as a planet, this is when we need to be united and not divided. This is what I think we all feel sometimes and I wish we could reach out to our neighbor, and I wish we could understand our differences. And I wish we could come together and fight as if aliens were coming down from the universe, you know? Just like an alien virus comes in and infects us all. I just want us to be united and English was failing me, so I went to simple math. I’m going to try out my equation on you. Multiply love, add hope, subtract fear, and end division.” Amid the big ensuing cheers, PJ treated us to more McCready magic with “Even Flow.” The hero surged into one of his signature otherworldly solos and Asbury Park went wild. Paying tribute to late legend Charlie Watts, the innate optimism of “Wishlist” was enhanced by pieces of “Waiting on a Friend” by The Rolling Stones. Matching the full three-day harvest moon that timed out with the festival, Pearl Jam’s next debut was the super-catchy “Superblood Wolfmoon.” Danny Clinch was back at it on harmonica when Pearl Jam dug into “Red Mosquito,” and something about Vedder’s repeated last line – “If I had known then what I know now” – hit harder than ever.
Many seasoned fans singing along to “Daughter” knew what was coming with that killer “W.M.A.” tag, which always whips up big screams. Right when the energy was that high, we got one more live debut with “Take the Long Way” – and the ‘wow’ faces throughout the crowd seemed to indicate a new level of appreciation for Gigaton. “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” caused such a loud singalong, when we all finally got “to scream hello,” it resonated across the beach in a wave of pure joy. The exciting “Given to Fly” surged into an intense “State of Love and Trust.” This was followed by a “Better Man” with a pretty rare tag of “People Have the Power” by Patti Smith – who, by the way, posted about chilling with Eddie Vedder on the beach, saying it was “great to meet by the sea.” After a devastating “Porch,” Pearl Jam’s moving encore began with a nod to Asbury royalty Bruce Springsteen, a cover of “My City of Ruins” which featured Vedder on acoustic guitar. Singing backup vocals were Alexander Simone, Joshua Rivers, Michelle Rushing, and Jason Rogers, “some new friends as of yesterday. I was looking for Asbury’s finest local singers, and then with two hours’ notice, we got them,” as Vedder explained. Another special guest came out when Lenny Kaye (who had been playing with Patti Smith) reappeared with Pearl Jam for their encore of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Around that time, Reignwolf fans were already racing to the late-night Wonder Bar set promised by the unpredictable blues-grunge hero. The raw power of Jordan Cook’s sound was massive in the tiny hot venue and the tight crowd couldn’t resist thrashing and gasping. Cook even yanked his cords to the extent that he could exit the venue entirely – a thrill for onlookers who were shocked to see him pop out the side door, rocking at full volume well past 1am. The final Reignwolf show this week is going down at Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday (don’t miss it) – and our coverage of Sea.Hear.Now on Sunday is coming soon on P&W.
Article: Olivia Isenhart