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Scott McLennan
The good life returns to Prowse Farm
By Scott McLennan

Michael Franti (photo by Rich Gaswirt.)

September 20, 2012

The Life is good Festival just doesn’t make sense. Or more correctly, the success of the Life is good Festival just doesn’t make sense.

For starters, the two-day music festival created by the Life is good clothing company and staged at Prowse Farm in Canton defies easy genre categorization. This year, jam-band dynamic duo Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, soul queen Sharon Jones, funketeer Trombone Shorty, contemporary pop songstress Sara Bareilles, and hip-hop rooted singer Michael Franti are part of the mix. But festival’s biggest buzz-generator is the Fresh Beat Band from its namesake children’s television show.

Yup, Life is good presents the best in kids and family music alongside marquee names in pop and rock.

Tim Reynolds and Dave Matthews (photo by Danny Clinch.)

The Life is good Festival started as a kids music fest held on Boston Common. When festival organizers began plotting something bigger two years ago, they visited other successful fests around the country.

“We went to Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits, and they told us. ‘You guys have a good thing with the kids festival, stick to that.’ But we believed we could have a mixed audience,” recalls James Macdonald, Life is good’s director of good vibes (really, that’s his job). “But you know, in our first year when you had Ziggy Marley playing and you saw 20-something hippies side-by-side with button-down parents who drove in with their kids, we knew you could mix the audiences. I mean everyone loves when a little kid is rocking out, and that’s what you saw.”

Linking the festival’s three stages of music are a variety of kid-friendly games and activities ranging from beanbag tosses to this year’s addition of disc golf.

The other pleasant surprise the Life is good Festival organizers discovered was just how much money it could raise for kids in need by switching from a free event to a paid, ticketed event.

“When something is free, I think people try and make it as free as possible,” Macdonald says.

Last year, the festival generated more than $1 million for Playmakers, which works with kids facing various hardships. Macdonald says the fundraising has become so successful because rather than treat the festival as a benefit concert, Life is good models itself after events such as the Pan-Mass Challenge and the Avon Walk, encouraging a more participatory form of fundraising.

Anyone can embark on a fundraising campaign for Playmakers, and the more money someone raises, the more benefits he or she can enjoy at the show. The backstage hospitality tents at Life is good, for example, are full of people who raised lots of money for the charity and find themselves mingling with likeminded fans and festival artists.

Life is good also does a good job presenting breakout artists, and this year people should be on the lookout for Sarah Jarosz, the fiery mandolin, guitar, and banjo player who earned a Grammy nomination in 2009, the same year she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music, where she recently returned for the fall semester.

Sarah Jarosz (photo source: sarahjarosz.com/photos.)

Even though the NEC is not that far from Life is good’s offices in the Back Bay, the festival team didn’t know about Jarosz until seeing her perform this year in Tennessee at Bonnaroo.

Like others encountering Jarosz for the first time, the Life is gooders were knocked off base by her crafty blend of traditional and contemporary influences.

“At this point, I don’t even consider my songs to be bluegrass anymore,” she says.

Raised near Austin in Wimberley, Texas, Jarosz got her first mandolin when she was 10 years old. She learned from old-timers, as young people just weren’t that involved in traditional music

Jarosz has since become part of an acoustic renaissance that involves a variety of young talent from the Carolina Chocolate Drops to Old Crow Medicine Show. There’s an especially vibrant scene around Boston, as seen when Jarosz was among those who hopped on stage with Crooked Still when that acoustic band celebrated its 10th anniversary at Somerville Theater last year.

“People don’t always think of Boston as a place with a big traditional or acoustic scene, but I’d put it near the top of the list,” Jarosz says.

Sort of like nobody thinking that a multi-generational music festival would be such a hit.

The Life is good Festival runs 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 22 and 23 at Prowse Farm in Canton, MA. For tickets and performance schedules, go online to www.lifeisgood.com.


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