Sweetlife Food & Music Festival: 28 April 2012 – Columbia, MD

Among music festivals, there is much competition these days for fest-goers’ attendance and dollars. Add Sweetlife fest to the tempting options. In 2007, Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman, and Nathaniel Ru, three Georgetown University students, inspired by poor meal options in their community, created Sweetgreen as the model food place they’d like to eat at regularly. Incorporating values such as sustainability, real wholesome food choices, and partnerships with local farmers and business owners, Sweetgreen is an example of entrepreneurs starting “green” initiatives centered on communities. With locations in D.C, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Sweetgreen is poised to grow with the demand for real, organic food.

Being passionate music lovers, the founders also envisioned and created the Sweetlife Food & Music Festival as another extension of their focus on community, connections, sustainability, food, and music. This party with a purpose, for the second year in a row, was held at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland.

For $75 (general admission), a hungry attendee had access to gourmet food vendors, particularly in the Food Forest, which included offerings from Serious Eats, Taim (I had an amazing falafel sandwich from their gourmet truck! Some of the best fast food one could want), Smucker Farms, The Big Cheese (yes, grilled cheese sandwiches, with long, but fast-moving, lines all day), Luke’s Lobster, Shake Shack, Toki Underground, DC Central Kitchen, and many others, including, of course, Sweetgreen’s offerings of fresh vegetables, salads, and fruit. Yes, one could get a domestic beer, but this attendee’s idea of domestic was a craft beer from Peak Organic Brewery, serving up their summer ale and an IPA.

People of all ages and hues enjoyed an appealing festival package of diverse music artists, entertainment, and food options. And the music, offered on two stages with an additional DJ lounge, was stellar, too. More on that later. Clearly, this festival has its own style, flare, and ambiance. This is tied into commerce, of course, but is deeply tied into the founders’ love for music and quality food, and, again, their connection to community.

What is clear is that this is a movement. These are socially conscious students, young professionals, activists, and normal citizens that want a good time and want to feel good about how they’re doing it — think impact. In between bites, sips, and conversation, individuals moved between all the fest’s offerings, an impressive, yet humane attendance. Sweetlife offered a nearly perfect way to kick off a spring and summer festival season.

The Music

Fun. started off the celebration on the Main Stage. Their upbeat, positive, danceable pop songs, including “Walking the Dog”, brought smiles and coaxed dancing — the party was underway. ASAP Rocky continued the party atmosphere with energetic emcee work on “Purple Swag” and others.

Fitz and the Tantrums captivated the crowd with its infectious rhythm and blues flavored songs, including “Wake Up”, “Breakin’ the Chains of Love”, “Winds of Change”, a cover of “Sweet Dreams”, and the popular “MoneyGrabber”. Noell Scaggs and Michael Fitzpatrick’s infectious vocals were backed by tight drums, bass, backing vocals, guitar, and keyboards, a full rhythm-and-blues band vibe. Scaggs and Fitzpatrick engaged the crowd, and Fitzpatrick’s stage antics showed signs of Motown and David Bowie influences. Their set was highly entertaining, nearly worth the price of admission alone.

On the side stage, the Treehouse Stage, one could find equally as impressive bands and artists, such as Haim, Ben Browning (of Cut Copy), who provided enchanting disco-funk-pop originals, Yuna, LP, The Knocks, Delta Spirit, and Zola Jesus, to name a few of the highlights. However, the Treehouse stage was won over and dominated by the Sweetlife vets, U.S. Royalty. Keep watching this group’s development: their engaging, sing-along songs, like “Equestrian”, delighted the crowd for their half-hour set (give them more time next year, eh). Their original soaring songs and heartfelt lyrics allude to U2, the Rolling Stones, and Muddy Waters. One of the great things about festivals is that you can discover a lot of great music, experiencing it raw and live. Musicians and promotional folks know this, so the road and touring continue to be the primary way to build and expand an artist’s fan-base, sell records and swag, and promote new material.

Back to the Main Stage, Explosions in the Sky demonstrated their atmospheric genius, offering cinematic, moody compositions, such as “Your Hand in Mine”, their set building in tension and release. The group’s performance was awe-inspiring and confident, clearly a crowd pleaser.

The Shins, playing to a packed pavilion and lawn, performed highlights from their catalog: “Simple Plan”, “Australia”, and “Port of Morrow”, with guitarist Jessica Dobson’s angelic, complementary vocals see-sawing seductively with James Mercer’s. A polished musician and frontman, Mercer lead his new band with ease and confidence.

Over at the 9:32 Lounge, DJs and song-slingers, booked for five hours, provided yet another diverse musical attraction, including DJ Grant Shapiro, Seasick Mama, DJ Grass, and others.

After The Shins, on the Main Stage, Kid Cudi and AVICII ramped the evening into full rave, dance party atmosphere, especially with “Levels vs. Gotye – Somebody That I Used To Know”. In light of the ramped up frenzy, the security folks must be applauded for keeping this fest safe and fun. The final acts provided a poetic climax to a great day of music and food in a beautiful, tree-rich landscape, with the forest as a backdrop to the evening performers’ pulsing strobes and lights.

More on the Sweet Philosophy, Movement

What this really is a new movement, an occupy your life movement, for those with some expendable cash. Sweetlife is a feel-good daylong event chock full of music, and examples of sustainability — the food utensils were vegetable-based, biodegradable, and Global Inheritance offered its prizes for recyclables initiative, TRASHed, among other earth-friendly activity on the grounds.

With founding company Sweetgreen’s emphasis on quality, healthy food choices, this philosophy radiates into their fest, as it does, of course, with other spring and summer music fests. However, as this fest’s reputation grows, the grassroots vibe and media attention expand, Sweetlife seems to be establishing strong roots for it to develop into an original, appealing and noteworthy festival choice. This recent effort by Sweetgreen, with its well-considered line-up and add-ons, is commendable and evidences Sweetlife’s attractiveness to future conscientious festival goers.