Colorado’s Red Rocks might be the outdoor venue of choice for those who like their concerts augmented by natural beauty, but Prowse Farm in Canton is no slouch itself. Nestled between a towering peak of the Blue Hills looming on one end and a (man-made) lake seated at the other, this past weekend’s Life is good Festival (with proceeds earmarked for programs for children in need) explicitly promised good vibes all around.
Good vibes do not always mean smooth sailing, though, and Saturday evening began with a hastily adjusted schedule, as Dawes and the Roots swapped performance slots and stages. But Dawes’s sophisticated Americana benefited from the diffuse sonic edges of the outdoors, and the foursome’s fatalism was tempered with enough warmth to go down easy for a festival crowd.
The Roots, meanwhile, never let up. There were no breaks between songs; the only pauses came when the hip-hop group (and future “Tonight Show” house band) held for effect. Instead, they cranked the beat tighter and tighter as they went, though nothing topped “Thought @ Work” halfway through, with Black Thought spitting out rapid-fire lyrics as drummer ?uestlove dropped a propulsively rolling and slightly ominous beat.
Following that set, it was hard not to wish that Saturday headliners (and fellow Philadelphians) Daryl Hall & John Oates had been backed by The Roots instead of their own band. Heavy-handed arrangements sucked some of the nuance and soul out of hits like “Out Of Touch,” “Say It Isn’t So,” and “She’s Gone.” But they were crowd-pleasers nonetheless, with Hall’s voice seeming particularly ageless. A compellingly restrained “Sara Smile” and the funkier underbelly given to “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” meanwhile, benefited from a sharpness that the rest of the set could have used.
Kicking off Sunday evening’s lineup of feel-good chillaxery, Amos Lee (another Philadelphian) played solo acoustic, which only amplified his songs’ coffeehouse soul. But he was hindered by his mixture of over-earnest social commentary and philosophizing, as well as his failure to use his potentially expressive voice outside of a distressingly narrow range. With loose, jammy beats and three-part harmonies, Good Old War (from, yes, Philadelphia) were just as earnest but bouncier and less concerned with expressing the gravity of human experience.
Headliner Jack Johnson overcame many of the same flaws that dogged Lee. Part of it was Johnson’s greater ability to roll with glitches like forgotten lyrics and part was the fact that “casual” was intrinsic not just to his approach but his songs. But it was also thanks to a band that provided just enough punch. Zach Gill’s piano was especially crucial, adding a necessary snap to songs like “Upside Down,” “If I Had Eyes,” and, especially, “Radiate,” where it was quietly transformative.
Johnson did not technically close out the festival, though. The coffeehouse venue offered the equivalent of an after-party chill-out both nights. Mike Doughty’s gruff drawl and springy, percussive guitar hacks served Saturday’s guests, while Session Americana’s raucous roots smorgasbord — running the gamut from Gram Parsons to Mark Sandman to the Beastie Boys — did the honors Sunday.