Recycling may be important but it doesn't sell tickets or put people in the seats -- not that anyone attending Saturday's free WBOS 92.9 EarthFest concert at the DCR Hatch Shell needed either of those things. What was needed or, perhaps more precisely, hoped for by the 100,000 or so people who flocked to the lawn (crowd estimates by city and state police, volunteers, and other officials varied wildly) was a good day with great music, or vice versa.
Thanks to a strong sun, temperatures in the 80s, and a lineup topped by hometown pop heroes Guster and Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, they got both -- along with a dedication to the day (Tunstall's "Under the Weather"), a prayer for the planet (the John Butler Trio's "Ocean"), and a sprawling, eco-friendly village of environmental awareness-raising wares.
"I've never looked down from the stage and seen so many people," WBOS music director Dana Marshall said backstage, referring to the throng that by noon had swarmed along the Charles River for the day long event. "Every aspect of this day has been so gratifying. We're recycling, composting, and using every 'green' product that we can." WBOS program director David Ginsburg , working his eighth of the station-sponsored total of 14 annual EarthFests, added that "there's something for everyone here."
Not least of which was the music. The main stage's adult-contempo-heavy bill reflected WBOS's listener demographic, while a smaller "Boston Music Stage" featured promising local upstarts such as Mieka Pauley, Jake Brennan, and others. The child-friendly "Family Stage," meanwhile, offered magic shows, storytelling, and a set of sweet-toothed confections by Girl Authority.
After the U.K.-based alt-pop outfit Vega 4 kicked off the afternoon's main-stage festivities, Vermont's own Grace Potter and the Nocturnals delivered a gutsy, straight-no-chaser set of spirited and yes, earthy rock 'n' roll that amply showcased the 24-year-old Potter's powerful pipes. Nashville singer-guitarist Mat Kearney's easygoing but over-earnest set of bland ballads ("All I Need") and middle of the road pop ("Nothing Left to Lose") sapped some of the day's energy before Tunstall and her spirited band helped restore momentum with crisp, invigorating readings of, most notably, "Miniature Disasters," "Suddenly I See," and "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" (the latter of which included a cool segue into the primal big-beat blues standard "Baby, Please Don't Go").
Strange as it might seem, Tufts alums and perennial college faves Guster have been around for well over a decade now. Although a few things have changed (they've since added a fourth member, guitarist Joe Pisapia , and the band's pop sense has only gotten sharper with the years), the close harmonies and core charm of singer-multi-instrumentalists Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner , and drummer Brian Rosenworcel , cheerfully remains. The newer songs shone brightest, from an effervescent "Amsterdam" to the R.E.M.-esque valentine "Satellite," to the lovely lope of "One Man Wrecking Machine."
An earlier highlight proved to be the John Butler Trio, fronted by the singer-guitarist namesake of the band. He deftly led cohorts Shannon Birchall (stand-up bass) and Michael Barker (drums) through an intrepid fusion of Appalachian-flavored bluegrass, slippery acoustic funk, and jug - band jamming -- sometimes all at once. Butler's solo instrumental turn on 12-string acoustic guitar during "Ocean" was a breathtaking highlight that refracted multiple colors of the physical and emotional spectrum through jewel-like prisms of melody and rhythm: urgency and contemplation; tenderness and power; and above all beauty, much like the sea itself. Given the thrust of the day, it was a fitting moment indeed.