Words by Audra Tracy / Photos by Rod Snyder
The Sea Hear Now Festival returned to Asbury Park, New Jersey on September 17th and 18th, with sunny skies, scenic views, and enough diverse music to delight attendees of all ages. With three stages – two on the beach and one in Bradley Park – fans had plenty of space to make some magical memories in this city by the sea.
Born in 2018, this little oceanside event continues to level up each and every year. This time, an improved festival layout, expanded food and drink options, new art installations, and of course, an incredible roster of musical acts, made for a sublime weekend at the Jersey shore. Sea Hear Now added another eclectic line-up to the record books, with performances by Stevie Nicks, Green Day, My Morning Jacket, Boy George & Culture Club, Cage The Elephant, Billy Strings, Gary Clark Jr., Wet Leg, Courtney Barnett, Celisse, Idles, and many more.
Curated by prolific music photographer Danny Clinch, the event was designed to celebrate art in every form, and the scene was filled with stunning sights and sounds to savor all weekend long. Clinch even hosted his own Transparent Clinch Gallery Pop-Up tent, which featured pieces from musicians across the festival bill. Fans could peruse drawings on drumheads by Green Day’s Tré Cool, a painted guitar on display from Michael Franti, scribbled sketches from Billy Strings, and even a ‘wall of fame’ showcasing Clinch’s own photography prints. Throughout the two-day event, artists popped into the tent for some ‘secret’ intimate acoustic performances, too.
There was much to see, hear, and experience – and here are the highlights from Day 1:
Dogs in a Pile
Getting a thousand hippies to show up for a 12:45pm set-time is no easy feat, yet Asbury Park’s own Dogs in a Pile drew a huge crowd at the Park Stage to kick off Day 1 of Sea Hear Now. The five-piece jam band has been building up a buzz across the festival circuit, and their fans (known as the ‘dogpound’) showed up in droves to catch some improvisational songs that were right in tune with Phish and the Grateful Dead. The short set was definitely suited for its location – the band played a few original songs, including one called ‘Tillie’ (named after the iconic ‘face’ of Asbury Park), plus a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’. Nodding to the Deadheads in the crowd, a cover of ‘Sunshine Daydream’ closed the set, and sent fans on their way to the next adventure…
Was the Sand Stage made especially for The Surfrajettes? Because watching ladies play surf rock tunes with a gorgeous view of the ocean is a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon. In matching silver skirts and white boots, the four-piece band from Toronto performed a set of instrumentals that were perfect for a day at the beach. Guitarists Shermy Freeman and Nicole Damoff traded riffs that would make Dick Dale proud, and had the crowd moving and grooving along, too. Songs from the band’s debut LP, Roller Fink, filled the set, and their cover of Blondie’s classic ‘Heart of Glass’ was definitely a hit. If you were looking for that tropical ‘toes in sand, drink in hand’ moment, this was the place to be!
Celisse. Like Prince, she needs no last name. For the savvy, she needs no introduction, either. But, if you don’t know, Celisse played lead guitar for Lizzo on Saturday Night Live, she’s a founding member of Trey Anastasio’s Ghosts of the Forest, and she just spent her summer touring with Brandi Carlile and Dave Matthews Band. She can sing. She can shred. And she did both with a fierce and captivating style during her Saturday set at Sea Hear Now. Sparkly pink amps emblazoned with ‘Celisse loves you!’ lined the Park Stage as she led her trio through steamy originals like ‘Mystery to Me’ and ‘Undercover’. And there was no doubt that her take on the Bill Withers tune, ‘Use Me’, sealed the deal for anyone within earshot. Get on board – Celisse is going places, with or without you.
Boy George & Culture Club
Next, another icon was waiting in the wings – 80’s pop star Boy George. Joined by two of Culture Club’s original members – bassist Mikey Craig and guitarist Roy Hay – George held court at the Surf Stage for a late afternoon set. Together they opened with an unexpected cover of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, which quickly showed off the skills of Culture Club’s full backing band and vocalists. In between radio hits like ‘I’ll Tumble 4 Ya’ and ‘‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’, Boy George was happy to address his large congregation. “Are you ready for some reggae music? I can smell that you are!”, he quipped before the band delivered ’Everything I Own’. The crowd was loose and laid back, soaking up the nostalgia as George & CC closed their set with ‘Miss Me Blind’ and of course, ‘Karma Chameleon’.
While currently on the Outlaw Music Festival Tour with Willie Nelson, Grammy winner Billy Strings stopped by to seize the day at Sea Hear Now, packing the Park Stage on Saturday evening. At only 29 years old, Strings is turning bluegrass on its head, and redefining the traditional genre with every twang of his guitar. And the people love it – a massive crowd of hardcore fans showed up in support, making this one of the most popular acts of Day 1. “Let me get my little fingers moving!”, the Nashville-based picker announced, as he and his band performed songs including ‘This Old World’, ‘Heartbeat of America’, ‘In The Morning Light’, and ‘Hide and Seek’.
My Morning Jacket
The day was winding down, yet My Morning Jacket was here to keep everyone’s spirits lifted. Led by golden-voiced Jim James, the alt-rockers from Louisville, Kentucky lit up the Park Stage with a nine-song set that would convert any non-believer. Earlier that day, James had performed a ‘secret set’ of acoustic tunes at the Transparent Clinch Gallery Pop-Up tent in Bradley Park, but the night time brought out some real electric energy. Together My Morning Jacket performed a mix of music from their storied catalog, including ‘Gideon’, ‘Spring (Among the Living)’ and the scorching ‘One Big Holiday’, which is always a crowd pleaser. ‘Love Love Love’, from their recent self-titled release, made the cut, in addition to another highlight, ‘Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2’. It was one of those idyllic summer nights, with MMJ spreading good vibes that set the stage for the night’s mystical headliner…
Sea Hear Now definitely brought some leading ladies to the stage this year, and Day 1 was topped off by an incredible performance by the supreme queen, Stevie Nicks. Not many 74 year olds look and sound this good, and even fewer can headline Bonnaroo and Sea Hear Now in the same summer. Tonight, on the shores of Asbury Park, her spectacular set on the Surf Stage clearly cast a spell on the thousands in attendance.
Fleetwood Mac fans got their fill of hits early on, as ‘Dreams’ and ‘Gypsy’ made appearances, in addition to covers by Buffalo Springfield (‘For What It’s Worth’) and Tom Petty (‘Free Fallin’). But this was just warming the crowd up, and what followed was a string of songs that simply floored a whole festival full of revelers. The stage lighting glowed and flickered like candles, simulating a seance on the beach as Nicks and her band conjured up an absolute masterpiece: ‘Gold Dust Woman’. Mesmerized fans had just moments to recover before they were met with ‘Landslide’ next, then ‘Edge of Seventeen’.
For the encore, Stevie returned with ‘Rhiannon’ and a nod to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’, sending fans out to Ocean Ave starry-eyed and satisfied. It was all a beautiful blur, and it was only Day 1!
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