As the ocean breeze swirled over the sashes and chains that hung from her mic stand, Stevie Nicks gazed out at the huge crowd – some 30,000 people stretched for a quarter of a mile on the beach, a vision of the serenity of late summer on the Jersey Shore – and described the scene as only she could: “a fairy tale”.
The sprawling Sea Hear Now festival kicked off its fourth year at Asbury Park on Saturday, and as throngs of fans flooded the sand north of the historic Convention Hall and near Bradley Park, it was clear that the biggest festival in New Jersey rock and pop music has successfully cultivated its own mystique and atmosphere (or brand recognition, if you’re cynical) – a sense of uniqueness and destination that no amount of money can buy.
While I can’t speak to the pressure on the city to help police and organize such an event, from within the walls of the festival, Sea Hear Now again came across as a resounding victory for production company C3 Presents, which organized the festival – as well as the much larger Lollapalooza in Chicago and Austin City Limits in Austin – in partnership with Toms River native rock photographer Danny Clinch, best known as the personal photographer by Bruce Springsteen.
Fans lined up on Saturday to shop for SHN merchandise, browse Clinch’s transparent gallery photography pop-up and pose with the art-punk portraits laid out on the beach of current and past artists – Nicks, Billy Idol, Patti Smith and more – between trips to the festival’s three stages, which together hosted 15 acts, headlined by Nicks, the festival’s first female headliner to date.
With that, the crowd was markedly different from previous years: While Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews ushered in guy crushes (a “men’s” accolade, of course), Stevie Nicks drew waves of women wearing wide-brimmed hats. edges and flowing dresses, a welcome change.
The weather was once again glorious – SHN has been lucky since launching in 2018, no rain yet – and overall day one of two has been an exciting comeback. Sunday continues with punk-rock icons Green Day headlining, but first, let’s break down Saturday’s best moments:
Sea Hear Now Highlights: Saturday
Back to Stevie: “Is this Bruce Springsteen’s world?” Nicks asked at the start of his 90-minute performance, cheering the crowd on. Although The Boss did not appear, no shine was lost from Nicks’ emphatic set, which echoed effortlessly across the expanse of the waterfront and beyond the waves painted green, pink and blue by lights filtered. Attend enough festivals and you’ll learn that some artists’ voices don’t hold up well in such a monstrous setting. But Nicks, 74, was in charge, unloading a mix of solo classics and Fleetwood Mac staples, twirling on the spot and walking around the stage as his eight-piece band played.
The most emotional moment of the night came, perhaps unsurprisingly, during “Landslide,” which Nicks tearfully dedicated to Tessa Fleetwood, Mick Fleetwood’s granddaughter and goddaughter, who was in attendance. The crowd ran, many eyes equally moistened.
More explosive were the smashing renditions of “Gold Dust Woman” (with flecks of golden dust swirling across the big screen) and its synth-laden solo cut “Stand Back”. And sure enough, “Edge of Seventeen” fired up the audience again. Nicks sang “Free Fallin'” in tribute to his close friend Tom Petty, who died in 2017, with cheerful images of Petty and Nicks onscreen.
She also unloaded a pointed cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” prefaced with a fun quip: “I hope you all like it, whatever, I love it.” I’ll take Stevie’s attitude eight days a week.
And the set ended with a rousing version of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock N’ Roll”, sending the audience on a high. It was a propelling performance, significantly more intense than his solo tour I covered a few years ago, and surely the most memorable headliner in Sea Hear Now’s young history. Pure joy and power.
Just before Nicks, New Jersey pop icon Fletcher took the second stage for a thrilling performance in his hometown, not far from where the singer grew up in Manasquan and Wall.
Fletcher, 28, has built a huge global following around his confessional stories of heartbreak and glowing queer love, amassing more than a billion streams online, and was taking a victory lap on Saturday, after coming out her first full album, “Girl of My Dreams” on Friday, via the legendary Capitol Records.
While Fletcher was clearly troubled by some technical issues on stage and commented on how nervous she was, the set was largely seamless as she ripped through her R&B-tinged fan favorites “All Love,” “If You ‘re Gonna Lie” and “Sex With My Ex”.
“I dreamed of playing at this festival,” Fletcher said. “This is the coolest, weirdest, craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
A large crowd gathered as her hour-long set continued, hooking the crowd with covers of Billie Eilish’s banger “Happier Than Ever” and Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” Her vocal power was unleashed on “Feel” and her lustful new hit “Becky’s So Hot”, as well as an unreleased song called “The Jersey In Me”, for which she welcomed family and friends on stage; a moment of loop for the local star. At the same time, on the Park Stage, My Morning Jacket delivered what I was told was a terrific set (I can’t be in two places at once, unfortunately).
Earlier on the main stage, Austin blues-rock stalwart Gary Clark Jr. was a consummate pro, delivering the heavy guitar vibes as the sun set, growling through his biggest solo hit “Bright Lights.” and being joined on stage by Clinch on harmonica (Clinch’s Tangiers Blues Band was not engaged this year).
And in the early evening, new wave legends Boy George and Culture Club put on an absolutely dominating set on the main stage, booming with their 11-piece band. George, in his perfectly askew pink carnation hat, was center stage, of course, holding court and smiling as the crowd ate the 80s staples “I’ll Tumble For Ya”, “Karma Chameleon” and a slow-burning rendition of “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”. George, 61, delivered a crisp and powerful vocal performance, the band ripped it up – wise booking.
“I love it, I feel like the sea is always calling me,” George said.
But the most pleasant surprise of the day, and surely the biggest discovery for many fans, was the afternoon park set of Celisse, an incendiary singer-songwriter and guitarist who played with Mariah Carey , Graham Nash and Melissa Etheridge, and stuck alongside Lizzo on “Saturday Night Live.” Along with a drummer and bassist, Celisse discharged herself as a vocalist, blending elements of rock, blues, R&B and jazz — and giving Clark a run for her money as the virtuoso shredder of the day. His cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” might have been worth the price of admission alone, as would his original track “Freedom,” performed with tremendous power and verve.
Sea Hear Now continues on Sunday with performances from Green Day, Cage the Elephant, The Head and the Heart, Courtney Barnett and more.