It was raining yesterday morning — and thankfully the weather gods switched the downpour with Sunday’s splendor and the Martha’s Vineyard Festival which saw music jamming in Ocean Park from three in the afternoon until just past 11 p.m.
“It doesn’t rain on my shows,” declared Festival Network vice president Rick White just before the event.
NASA might want to get in touch with him.
Mr. White, who spent childhood summers in Oak Bluffs between 1956 and 1963, was thrilled to combine the heavy hitting machinery of his company’s concert promotion with the panoramic beauty of Martha’s Vineyard. “Look at this!” he exulted as he wheeled an electric cart around the nine acres of Ocean Park, taking in the indigo blue water of the Sound, the scrim of bulbous white clouds on the northwestern horizon and the arc of Victorian manor houses. “You could not find a more spectacular venue for a concert anywhere in the world!”
The construction of the concert site began at the end of last week. The giant stage went up along the Beach Road perimeter (with a screening of the documentary Zeb on Saturday night). On the west flank, a line of white tents reared up, the roof lines of isosceles triangles topped with American flags. By Sunday morning a low fence surrounded the entire park to make matters official: Only ticket holders were admitted inside the concert grounds, although folks were free to camp on surrounding lawns and to listen from porches. And they did.
Although the Boston Pops played in Ocean Park last summer, this year marked the birth of a bigger, more ambitious, seven-plus hour event. Oak Bluffs selectman Ron DiOrio said: “It’s such a huge undertaking that we need to give ourselves this time around to work out the glitches.”
A steady stream of complaints arose around the price of tickets. Ironically, no one faulted the high-end costs: For $10,000 a guest could purchase a table for 10 people, situated at the base of the stage and within easy strolling distance of tents banked with cornucopian platters of food provided by caterer Jan Buhrman, glasses of champagne and baskets of pink hydrangeas and red majolica trellis roses by florist Louise Sweet. A second phalanx of folding chairs sold for $350 each and also supplied access to the pleasures of the tents. A portion of the proceeds would be split three ways between the YMCA, Vineyard House and the Oak Bluffs Association.
Beyond that the price of admission was $75 if purchased in advance and $85 on the day of the event. No one begrudged spending money to help the charities, but many voiced concern about too many potential concertgoers left out of the equation, especially in this summer’s slow economy. Sluggish attendance was apparent in the afternoon when Entrain performed, along with Phil daRosa, Willy Mason, Steel Pulse and Kate Taylor. On a side stage on the southeastern quadrant of the park, other musicians took up the slack of downtime on the main stage: The Manami Morita Quartet, Phil daRosa from another angle, and the NAACP choir.
As darkness fell, the full frontal assault of star power took over. The blues, R& B, jazz and soul group Neville Brothers, known for their passionate funk, rocked the park like it has arguably never been rocked before. Lead singer Aaron Neville, wearing a green T-shirt with the word Angola, sang such favorites as Tell It Like It Is and Drift Away, along with some hip-hop numbers that got everyone up and out of their chairs.
The Boston Pops came next, with conductor Keith Lockhart and a sea of orchestral musicians under a Niagara of billowing gauze curtains made purple, red and blue by a monster lighting system. A tribute to Leonard Bernstein and some of his Broadway standards was followed by a featured guest, 16-year-old West Tisbury junior diva Katie Mayhew, celebrated winner of the Boston Symphony’s high school sing-off contest held earlier this summer. Ms. Mayhew, in a blue evening gown that fluttered along with the stage curtains, looking delicate with her strawberry blond hair pulled back in a braid, nonetheless tore up Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive from Company like the best of the red-hot mama song belters. Her reward was a standing ovation from her thousands of proud Vineyard adoptive aunties and uncles.
The Pops pulled out all stops for their finale, Stars And Stripes Forever, replete with flashing red, white and blue lights on the top grid of the stage and a centrally placed searchlight sweeping the audience. The orchestra kept their places as seven-time Grammy winner Gladys Knight swept onto the stage. The Empress of Soul carried the evening to new heights with her 1000-watt presence, pitching into such platinum hits as You’reBest Thing That Ever Happened to Me and Neither One Of Us, as if singing them for the first time. Ms. Knight inspired a final hurrah of audience singing and dancing with Midnight Train To Georgia.
And then the Martha’s Vineyard Festival ended on a sigh of contentment, thousands strong.