Great South Bay Music Festival, currently in its 5th year, is a bonafide phenomenon. The festival brings over 45 bands to Patchogue’s Shorefront Park from July 15th to 17th. Local up-and-comers as well as established artists mingle with headlining national acts in a diverse stew of genres—rock, jazz, jam, funk and plenty of others. This year, the first night is headlined by bluesy mainstay Hot Tuna, the second night, jam-rock darlings Umphrey’s McGee and night three is capped off by rockers 38 Special. The appearance of Hot Tuna is a pretty big deal. Great South Bay Music Festival first-timers, they are veterans of over forty years of performances on Long Island and elsewhere. Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady were members of seminal 60s San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane and local audiences have stood out in their eyes. “LI fans set a standard, which can only be aspired to by outsiders,” Kaukonen said, adding that Long Island responses to Tuna’s music are “sometimes delightfully inappropriate.”
At least 20,000 people are expected during the whole weekend, and the scope of this year’s festival is bigger than it’s ever been. “I think we’re growing at a pretty astronomical rate…70% of our crowd has been there for a couple of years, and come back every year… people know who we are now, it’s taken a while,” declared James Faith, co-mastermind of the festival. Faith is a musical jack-of-all-trades, having been both a performer onstage and holder of various positions behind the scenes for over 35 years. He is currently President of James Faith Entertainment and Chairman and founding member of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. Faith is quick to point out that the event doesn’t become a success solely through his efforts “It’s a family thing…It’s the four of us basically doing everything” he emphasized, acknowledging the hard work of his partners Joe Tesoriero, Joe’s wife Grace, and Faith’s daughter Jamie who handle such vital aspects as advertising, booking, artwork, vendors, the infrastructure of the festival and lots more.
Faith has a different approach from the money-centric attitudes of some festivals. “I really want to build it as a community, give people what they want, I think that’s important, rather than just being a cold ‘hey here’s some acts, you come in, you pay me the money, you sit down, we’re gonna charge you tons of money for the food,’ I think that’s a horrible way to approach things,” he asserted. “I’d rather have something that we’re proud of.”
In the land of the cover band, Faith seeks out original acts. “Tribute bands or top 40 bands…bring in a lot of people, they have a lot of work…It’s the original bands that have a hard time, they’re the ones that have no place to play,” he said. Not booking acts with a guaranteed audience is taking a chance, but Faith and his partners believe it’s worth it. “So we kind of risk not being able to do what we want to do by putting [the bands] on, but I’d rather do it that way and…give these people the opportunity to put their music out there and hopefully further their careers,” he said. Such artists seem to have discovered the opportunity that the festival is offering—submissions from local musicians vying for a spot on the bill jumped from around 50 in 2007 to over 700 for this year. “It’s hard to say no to so much local talent, but we only have so many spots,” Faith said, apologetically.
In 2008, a bit of music history was made—the festival was one of the last performances by gospel/folk giant Odetta before she passed away. This performance was not without apprehension by Faith. “I wasn’t sure whether to book her, actually. I wanted to lay her on everybody and just let everybody see this amazing person, so I was a little nervous,” he confessed. This is understandable as Odetta is considered “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement” and was dubbed “The Queen of American Folk Music” by none other than Martin Luther King Jr. Faith sets the scene: “It was just a great moment. The tent was packed… we had to lift her in a wheelchair up on stage. I had tears in my eyes when she was on, when they gave her a standing ovation because she deserved it, she was amazing.”
It’s not just the audience that revels in peak musical moments. Cathy Henderson, member of NYC rock group Antigone Rising said that it would be “a great time for us to see bands who have influenced us, and an awesome opportunity to see some of Long Island’s up and coming talent.” Local slide guitar master Kerry Kearney can barely control his excitement—“I love the Great South Bay Fest. It gave me the opportunity to go toe to toe with some of my heroes.”
It’s a far cry from the two aborted Calverton festivals planned back in 2003, one of which, the Bonnaroo Northeast festival, would have been headlined by Bob Dylan, The Dead and Tom Petty. “That would have been a really great festival,” Faith said. When [politics are] with you it’s great, when it’s against you, forget it! They can bury the best thing on the planet.” In terms of welcoming the Great South Bay Music Festival, Patchogue Village administration is an entirely different story. “They literally met us in the middle of a blizzard, that’s how organized and motivated they were. They were very cool and to this day are very cool,” Faith said with gratitude.
In the final analysis, Kaukonen said it best: “Summer on Long Island…we get to play in our favorite place. It’s a recipe for success.”