Not long into her headlining set on the first day of the fourth annual Sea Hear Now festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Stevie Nicks had a question for the thousands stretched across the beach.
“Is this the world of Bruce Springsteen?” she asked to enthusiastic cheers. “OK, we’re driving through, and there’s a street sign and I asked that same question and nobody really answered, at least like you guys just did.”
Springsteen is certainly a part of the tapestry of the town, and was well-represented in photographer/festival organizer Danny Clinch’s art tent. But the city has an ever-evolving musical scene, and the beachside setting was its own draw on a weekend of warm, beautiful days and picturesque nights, with an ocean breeze enveloping Nicks and her flowing scarves, creating an ambience — or as she described it, a “fairytale” — only Mother Nature can provide. A red crescent moon peeking through the overhead clouds added to the mystique on the final weekend of summer and beginning of the fall season, or as Nicks — in a nod to her fans donning witch hats and Stevie-attire on the sand — framed it: “it’s almost Halloween.”
“I would like to thank Danny Clinch for putting on this amazing festival,” Nicks said. “To have a festival right on the ocean is pretty spectacular. I live on the ocean so for me I feel like I’m right at home.”
Sunday headliner Green Day has some history in Asbury Park, having first appeared at the Stone Pony when concerts were in a tent, supporting “Dookie” at the time, and later on performing inside Convention Hall. Singer Billie Joe Armstrong embraced the seaside setting fervently, challenging fans to give summer one last hurrah with an invite to go “skinny dipping” after the show.
Stretched out over three stages, the festival gave fans the opportunity to race up and down the beach, boardwalk and a grassy park area to savor a lineup of acts that included Culture Club, Billy Strings, Wet Leg, My Morning Jacket, Gary Clark Jr., the Head and the Heart, Idle, Courtney Barnett, Tai Verdes, Skip Marley, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Cimafunk, Aly & AJ, Peach Pit, the Backstreet Lovers and more. Professional surfers participated in a “‘North Shore Rumble,” but the ocean was calm on Saturday and Sunday, with jet skiers deployed to create waves for the occasion.
The Asbury Park scene was represented by local rising star Fletcher, Dentist and Dogs in a Pile entertaining on the Sand and Park stages, with “American Idol” alum Cole Hallman, a Manasquan resident who worked summers at the Stone Pony, supporting in the audience. Clinch, born in Toms River, even gets in on the action performing at the Pony every year on the first night of the festival with his own group, Tangiers Blues Band.
While this year’s crowd wasn’t as massive as the previous year when Pearl Jam headlined, VIP wristbands sold out. On the Sand Stage for the Backstreet Lovers’ set, VIP and Platinum wristband holders had to wait their turn to access the premium area as it reached capacity on the side stage.
The festival is produced by C3 Presents, the team behind Lollapalooza, along with Clinch and Tim Donnnelly.
Here are the top 10 moments of the festival:
The Asbury Park born-Fletcher — first introduced on the first season of “X-Factor” when Simon Cowell paired her with other contestants to form the group Lakoda Rayne, under Paula Abdul’s guidance —celebrated the release of her new album, “Girl of My Dreams,” with a show on the Sand Stage that included the new song “Becky’s So Hot” and a nod to Springsteen with “I’m on Fire,” exciting her fan base who came with signs of support. A nod to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” ignited the performance.
Culture Club honors George Michael
Boy George of Culture Club captivated the audience, joking early on that he knew that the crowd wasn’t there for the band but “fucking will be by the end of the set.” Hits like “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” “Miss Me Blind,” a slow version of “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and “Karma Chameleon” dominated the performance=. An opening cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and a later salute to T. Rex with “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” drew cheers. But it was the mix of “Church of the Poison Mind” combined with Wham’s “I’m Your Man” that tugged at the emotional heartstrings from the crowd remembering George Michael. Adding to the fun was “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star and Culture Club manager Paul “PK” Kemsley taking in all the action side-stage, taking selfies with fans and grinning from ear-to-ear.
Part of the charm of the festival is the action on the Park Stage, located off the beach. The acts on the Park Stage were an eclectic array of entertainment, with Billy Strings and his band performing his blend of bluegrass for energized fans all-in for a musical fiesta that included “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” “Crown of Thorns,” “Dos Banjos” and continuous musical interludes that kept the crowd on its feet.
Gary Clark Jr. shares an Asbury Moment
Clark rocked several guitars, including a very cool Flying V, for his set that included a bluesy jam with festival founder Danny Clinch on harp (“we’re going to play the blues,” Clark said). Clark’s set was a stellar representation of all of the musical flavors that excite musicians: blues, soul, R&B and plenty of tasty licks creating moments within every riff. None was as sweet as when Clark got sentimental, revealing that his first date with his girlfriend/now-wife was at the Stone Pony. The sexy jam “Our Love” was a real treat to hear as summer magic continued so close to the end of the season.
Cimafunk kicks off Sunday
Hailing from Cuba, Cimafunk and his band, the Tribe, set the bar high for the Park Stage, blending Caribbean rhythms, horns, funk, dance moves and a full-fledged party inviting audience members on stage to dance with the band. It was impossible to resist dancing, and the longer the set went, the more fans ran over to the stage to join the party. Sitting in his trailer after the show, Cimafunk — who just played a private show in the Hampton attended by Paul McCartney — assessed the day as a win for the band. “It was super nice,” he said. “When the music starts, they start to groove and they they start to get nuts and get crazy, and get in this tribal state — that kind of vibe, when you just start grooving and forget about everything and just being part of that.” The singer, dripping with sweat, celebrated the show with a swim in the ocean.
Wet Leg goes for the record of the World’s Longest Scream
The buzziest band on the bill did not disappoint Sunday, as Wet Leg brought energy to the Park Stage with a set that included “Supermarket,” “Wet Dream” and the group’s alternative hit “Chaise Longue” to an audience that hung on every word uttered by Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers. The band’s mix of power chords, deadpan delivery and major ’80s fun — how could one not find the humor in “I Wanna Be Abducted By a UFO”? — entertained the crowd, who happily obliged when a grinning, cat-eared Teasdale challenged them to have the longest recorded scream at a festival. The cheerful call and response between the band and audience on “Chaise Longue” (“excuse me… what?”) capped what was easily one of the most fun sets of the festival.
The audience gets in the act
The Surf Stage was the place to be to get some on-stage love from the artists. Michael Franti and Spearhead brought good vibes early, telling the audience holding hands was a better way to meet people than Tinder. He went another step forward, encouraging a beach-side Do Si Do. Franti also invited a fan from Maryland to sing onstage, and gave kids the spotlight for “Say, Hey, I Love You,” feeding them the lyrics to sing a line each. He also invited Jared Clemons, the son of late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, to share a moment in the sun during the set. Franti never missed a beat, even with a technical issue shorting out the sound on the beach.
The Head and the Heart do double duty
Just before the Head and the Heart closed out the Park Stage, the band played an intimate show with a Q&A for fans in the Transparent Clinch pop-up art gallery. The gallery — which featured photos and artwork contributed by the artists (Tre Cool of Green Day decorated snare heads with artwork, while photos from Stevie Nicks fetched $3,000) — also included two blue canvas paintings created by members Matt Gervais and Charity Rose Thielen. The artwork echoed the band’s new album, “Every Shade of Blue,” which the band heavily featured in a beautiful set that included the single “Virginia (Wind in the Night)” and the fan favorite “‘Rivers and Roads.” “The color blue to me was sort of like this clean and pure and simple way of establishing, almost like a mood ring, so many different types of emotions with one color,” said singer Jonathan Russel. “I just felt like we went through the whole spectrum of emotions in the last two years.” Russel said playing the festival was a treat. “I’m such a freak for the water,” he said. “I was swimming around in the ocean during Shakey Graves’ set, who we are doing a co-headining tour with now. I was just kind of floating around the ocean. It’s been phenomenal.”
Stevie Nicks honors Tom Petty
Tom Petty is gone but never forgotten as long as Stevie Nicks is concerned. Tom’s spirit was in the air at the festival as Nicks and guitarist Waddy Wachtel recreated the duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” the first single off “Bella Donna.” Stevie also treated the crowd to her new cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” with a history lesson, that the song was written about clashes with young people on the Sunset Strip over a proposed 10 p.m. curfew. “The things you write songs about, right? So I just thought that sometimes music can save the world, and this would be a good song for right now,” she said. Sublime versions of “Gold Dust Woman,” “Gypsy,” Dreams” and “Landslide” (dedicated to god-daughter Tessa Fleetwood, the daughter of Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood, in attendance at the festival) framed the night, capped by a rousing Led Zeppelin cover, “Rock and Roll,” to bring Saturday night’s festivities to a rousing conclusion.
Green Day jams with fans
Green Day closed out the festival with a tight and exciting set that included hits “Basket Case,” “Welcome to Paradise,” “Holiday” and the punk-rock opera “Jesus of Suburbia,” along with “American Idiot” and the fitting “Wake Me Up When September Ends” to bring summer to its natural conclusion, although it was still 85 and sunny at the show. Billie Joe Armstrong was at his hyperactive best with repeated shouts to New Jersey and mugging for the cameras through covers of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and “‘Rock and Roll All Night” by Kiss. But it was when he invited a fan to the stage to sing “Enemy” and a young boy named Luke to jam three power chords when Armstrong really hit his stride, even gifting the boy with a guitar to take home “because it’s all downhill from here.” The band’s set didn’t save the fireworks for the end of the show; the pyro went off several times, much to the delight of the packed beach and boardwalk.