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Music Review

Life is good for all parties at festival

Families share music, games, and good vibes

Among those playing on the Life is good stage yesterday was Brandi Carlile. Among those playing on the Life is good stage yesterday was Brandi Carlile. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Scott McLennan
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2011

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CANTON - Last year, the Life is good Festival was a curiosity, fusing a wholesome family show of the sort the namesake clothing company used to present for free on the Boston Common to a bona fide rock and pop fest. Year one raised a bunch of money for charity and the spirits of those hungry for a big music gathering that doesn’t skew to teens or metalheads.

Year two, which played out Saturday and yesterday at Prowse Farm, simply raised the bar in every way. A lineup featuring Ray LaMontagne, the Avett Brothers, and Boston Pops-enhanced performances by both Brandi Carlile and the Levon Helm Band lured audiences that surpassed 10,000 people each day. And through fest profits and associated fund-raising activities, more the $1 million was collected for the Life is good Kids Foundation.

Once again, the expansive site could handle two stages of “grown-up’’ bands and a tented pavilion for kid-specific artists, as well as a large area for games and activities for the young at heart. Watching adults challenge each other in sack races and tykes singing along to Michael Franti and Spearhead made it rough to tell whether this festival was a music event with a summer camp attached or a summer camp with some great music layered in.

The festival’s roots as a free family-music concert are intact with the care given to the curating of the children’s music tent. On both days, this enclave was packed with kids and their keepers, the lucky ones lounging on beanbag chairs. The lineup on the Good Kids stage repeated both days with Ben Rudnick, Keller Williams, Laurie Berkner, and Imagination Movers. Williams, better known for his freewheeling acoustic music in the “adult’’ world, held his own alongside the other veteran family acts (and after playing, he blended right into the audience with his two kids in tow).

LaMontagne, Helm, Carlile, Maceo Parker, and Zee Avi anchored the Life is good stage yesterday, while across the field on the Good Vibes stage, Raphael Saadiq, Robert Randolph, Ryan Montbleau, and Jenny Dee ran through a broad palette of styles.

LaMontagne closed last night with his rough-hewn tunes that sound soothing even when cut through with ache.

Helm’s big ensemble felt like “The Last Waltz’’ revisited as it presented many Band classics and tossed in an angelic version of the Grateful Dead’s “Attics of My Life,’’ bolstered by the Pops.

Carlile also used the Pops to great effect in her country-tinged repertoire. Parker’s band offered classic funk on the big stage right after Avi introduced a beguiling fresh sound there.

Saadiq’s sassy soul, Randolph’s Church of Hendrix guitar blowouts, Montbleau’s feel-good pop, and Dee’s garage-R&B had the Good Vibes stage crowd swaying throughout the day with a broadly appealing cross section of talent.

Saturday’s bill featured the Avett Brothers, Franti, Martin Sexton, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and barefoot Truth on the big stage. Ingrid Michaelson, Hold Steady, Tristan Prettyman, and blues outfit Dwight and Nicole played the Good Vibes stage.

In his band’s headlining set Saturday, Seth Avett aptly captured the spirit of the festival when he told the crowd, “We play a lot of festivals where people worry about being cool. This is cool, being with your family and having fun.’’

The Avett Brothers have beefed up their sound as their popularity soared upon the release of “I and Love and You’’ and likewise opened up tunes such as “Kick Drum Heart’’ into big show pieces. The brothers aired a new song, “Once and Future Carpenter,’’ that smacked of the rustic melancholy at the heart the Avetts’ best tunes.

Before the festival got some brotherly love, it felt the world-beat of Franti and Spearhead. Franti’s latest musical endeavor percolates with positivity, though he still speaks his mind on social and political issues.

Sexton performed solo and held the main-stage audience rapt with a performance that showcased the breadth of his vocal talents and took in a spectrum of music that ran from folk to blues to gospel.

The Dirty Dozen delivered a dose of New Orleans funk to the festival, and Barefoot Truth, a young band from Mystic, Conn., opened the main stage Saturday with an energetic set that fused rootsy jams to solid tunes.

Michaelson made her first concert appearance since December on the Good Vibes stage, blending quick-witted banter with earnest tunes.

The Hold Steady pushed Life is good to its rockingest limit Saturday, boasting a three-guitar front line and maniacal delivery from singer Craig Finn

Singer-songwriter Prettyman and Dwight and Nicole both managed to wish the audience a good evening during their sets in broad daylight. It was a testament of sorts to the festival’s intent to haul nighttime music out of the clubs and bars for the benefit of those with other evening commitments these days.

Scott McLennan can be reached at