There are a lot of good reasons to be down on big music festivals: too corporate, too expensive, not laid-back or family-friendly enough. Then there’s Levitate in Marshfield, which may be the perfect festival for people who hate festivals.
Levitate began nine years ago, when the surf shop of the same name put together an event for its 10th anniversary. It’s now grown into the three-day festival that happens on the Marshfield Fairgrounds this weekend, headlined on Sunday by Jack Johnson — probably the most appropriate artist there is to headline a surf-related event. Other headliners this year include Detroit funkateers Vulfpack, Chicago jam/prog band Umphrey’s McGee and second-generation reggae star Stephen Marley. And in the ultimate nod to community-based good-vibes music, they’ve got a member of the Grateful Dead, bassist Phil Lesh, headlining Saturday.
“It’s a fun outdoor festival in a beach town,” founder Dan Hassett said this week. “The concept is bringing the whole community together between music, the arts and the outdoors. And we take pride in putting local artists into the mix, so people might come for one band and discover a few more.”
The festival has garnered a good rep with artists who appreciate its philosophy; talent booker Thomas Cousins proudly recalls Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio (who headlined with his solo band in 2018) calling it one of his favorite festivals.
“We book based on mood over genre,” Cousins said. “We strive to have a vibe that’s high energy and family friendly — so there will be reggae, there’ll be jam bands, there’ll be indie rock. We try to capture the vibe of the surf shop and the people who congregate there. The artists’ greenrooms are built out of local material; you go backstage and see people shucking oysters. It’s that kind of event.”
One of this year’s featured bands, Stick Figure, also headlined the first Levitate in 2013. At the time they were based just down the road, as leader Scott Woodruff grew up in Duxbury. They’re now based in Southern California and are one of the best-drawing American reggae bands, having just wrapped up a successful amphitheater tour.
“We’ve been there since year one, and it’s been fun watching this festival grow,” Woodruff said this week. Growing up near a beach, he naturally gravitated toward reggae. “I started getting into bands from Jamaica and southern California when I was young, and I still try to stay true to my roots and make music that feels good.”
In recent months the band has collaborated with the Bermudan reggae artist Collie Buddz and California band Slightly Stoopid, and Woodruff says their forthcoming album includes a legendary Jamaican guest whose identity they’re keeping secret for now.
“Our music all stems from the original roots music from Jamaica, but I also took a lot of influence from bands like Sublime and Slightly Stoopid. We pull from everything and try to put it into something that feels different. It’s still reggae but there’s a lot that’s new in it.”
Though the festival is likely to sell out, Levitate is taking the unheard-of step of webcasting the event from start to finish, and not charging for it.
“I think we can grow outreach in a bigger way by not charging,” Hassett said.
This year Levitate will also be launching its charitable foundation, supporting a number of arts and community related causes.
All this is a far cry even from other grassroots festivals like Bonnaroo, which aim to get bigger every year.
“There comes a point where you start saying, ‘Let’s make as money as possible,’ ” Cousins said. “Instead of doing that, we’re trying to create something sustainable for the community, where 8- and 80-year-olds can be together.”
For more info, go to levitatemusicfestival.com.
Phil Lesh performs onstage at Headcount & Dayglo Present Phil Lesh And Very Special Friends At The Apollo Theater on Sept. 7, 2018 in New York City. Lesh headlines the Levitate music festival on Saturday.(Photo by Marc Millman/Getty Images for Dayglo Presents)