After its first season, New Haven music venue puts spotlight back on jam band scene

Photo of Andrew DaRosa

Connecticut's jam band scene is going through a renaissance. 

Between fast-rising stars in the touring circuit such as Eggy and Goose, to a possible Connecticut music festival with "indie/Vibes artists" in 2022, the jam band scene is vibrant heading into the new year.

Even during a year in which show cancellations and evolving COVID restrictions are creating uncertainty for the concert industry, one Connecticut concert venue did the impossible: open and operate a sold-out season during the pandemic.

After two years of planning, the Westville Music Bowl opened its doors in April at the former site of New Haven's Connecticut Tennis Center. "The Bowl," as it's affectionately called by the venue, is operated by Manic Presents, which also operates New Haven's College Street Music Hall and Hamden's Space Ballroom.

READ MORE: The ultimate guide to Connecticut's fall concerts (and beyond) 

The music venue hosted a wide variety of acts through its first season, which concluded in September with a co-headlining performance featuring reggae acts Dirty Heads and Sublime with Rome. 

However, the venue's main clientele were jam bands fans, who flocked to the venue to see acts like the Trey Anastasio Band, The Disco Biscuits, Billy Strings and Joe Russo's Almost Dead, which performed at the venue as part of a nine-show residency. 

Among the 40 shows held at the venue during its inaugural season, more than 25 were considered to be considered to be "jam bands."

Popularized by the likes of the Grateful Dead and Phish, jam bands pride themselves on the blending of various genres of music such as rock and funk, with an emphasis on improvisation.

The Bowl sold roughly 100,000 tickets in its first season with approximately 12 shows selling out, according to Dave Niedbalski, the founder of Lovely Day Presents, which booked shows for the venue.

"We opened Westville Music Bowl during a global pandemic, hosted 40 shows, received national accolades from artists and fans and now it’s being talked about as one of the top outdoor venues on the East Coast. I’d say that’s a solid start for year one," Niedbalski said. "The praise is motivating to raise the bar.  We all knew this place was special, but now we’re all about taking it to another level."

Connecticut Magazine's 'Best of Connecticut' survey listed the Westville Music Bowl as the best music venue in the state in 2021, and a recent Pollstar ticket sales report named it second-best-selling outdoor stadium in the world, only behind Fenway Park.

Though jam bands comprised a good percentage of the Westville Music Bowl's inaugural lineup, Niedbalski said other kinds of acts, like indie and Americana bands, will appear more frequently in the future. Niedbalski added that the venue is also looking at "all-day experiences with multiple acts," similar to its "Daze Between" show in August, which featured a number of musicians paying tribute to the legacy of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia.

"Promoting jam and developing artists in all genres will always be part of the Westville DNA, as it’s a core part of what we both do," Niedbalski said. "New Haven is a destination for fans and not just a pit stop between New York and Boston. Those who haven’t figured that out yet will very soon." 

Even for local jam bands themselves, the scene is thriving in the state.

Eggy, a four-piece jam band out of Woodbridge, had a stand-out year of sold-outs shows and an opening gig for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong at the Westville Music Bowl in June. With their recent string of successes, the band considers their home in the Nutmeg State a special place.

"For being such a small state, there have been these unique hubs as well. Like Hartford, being only 30 minutes from New Haven, has a pretty distinct scene, whereas New Haven from Black Rock has a distinct scene. Each one has cultivated its own community,” guitarist Jake Brownstein told Hearst Connecticut in July. “I give it up to the fans. There is a strong community of people that are dying to listen to that type of music and [are] open-minded.”

Eggy performs at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport, Conn. on July 15, 2021.

Eggy performs at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport, Conn. on July 15, 2021.

Andrew DaRosa

The band credits the now-defunct Gathering of the Vibes festival in Bridgeport with helping foster the jam band community in Connecticut. 

“It opened the door for us to do our own thing,” Eggy keyboardist Dani Battat said.  

Despite the popularity of the jam band festival, which hosted the likes of Widespread Panic, Primus and members of the Grateful Dead, it shut down after its 2015 festival because festival owners owed $500,000 in unpaid reimbursement for police overtime to the city of Bridgeport

Six years after the end of Gathering of the Vibes, the developer behind the Hartford Healthcare Amphitheater announced plans for two new festivals at Seaside Park in 2022 that will be produced by concert promoter Live Nation and Founders Entertainment, which produces New York's Governor's Ball.

Saffan, the amphitheater developer, said that one of the festivals would feature indie and "vibes" musicians while the other festival will feature "contemporary" artists.

Festival organizers have stated that they would not be associated with Gathering of the Vibes when describing the new festivals, which would run the third and fourth weekends of September.

Specifically, festival organizers and city council members named camping and late night activities at Gathering of the Vibes as an issue, which was described as "ugly as hell, rowdy [and] dangerous."

Phil Lesh of Phil Lesh and Friends performs at the Gathering of the Vibes concert at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn. on Friday July 20, 2012.
Phil Lesh of Phil Lesh and Friends performs at the Gathering of the Vibes concert at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn. on Friday July 20, 2012.Christian Abraham

Though "Vibes" artists have been discussed for one of the festivals, Tom Russell from Founders Entertainment reiterated that the new festivals would feature a "completely different show, completely different audience [and] completely different vibes, for lack of a better term.”

Despite the criticism of Gathering of the Vibes, Russell told the press last month that his experiences at the defunct jam band festival inspired him to start Founders Entertainment and eventually launch Governor's Ball. 

With less than year until the launch of the new festivals, the question remains whether the inspiration of Gathering of the Vibes and jam bands will shine through once again in Seaside Park. If so, what could the future of jam band festivals look like in Connecticut?