Dave Matthews Band stirs talk of an Atlantic City revival

Concertgoers at the Atlantic Stage listen to Guster. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Concertgoers at the Atlantic Stage listen to Guster. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 25, 2011

ATLANTIC CITY - Walking up Albany Avenue, the Dave Matthews Band Caravan at Bader Field in sight just over the water, the four guys from Michigan found themselves stopped by an open drawbridge.

Lacking a hula hoop (and not being the nitrous-balloon-sucking types), they pulled out another thing a happy Dave Matthews fan might turn to with a few minutes of down time: a hacky sack.

Oops. The little pouch soared immediately over the bridge rails.

"We lost our hacky sack in - what river is this?" asked Steve Adair, 22.

Um, no, not a river. It's the beach, and this is the back bay, the Intracoastal Waterway, or, as Matthews might say, the space between the suddenly brilliantly reimagined old municipal airport, Bader Field - home this weekend to the DMB Caravan - and the casino skyline over the Boardwalk and ocean.

The lost hacky sack was a small peril for the birth of a new music festival venue, a coup for down-but-not-out Atlantic City and the first major pop festival here since the storied 1969 Atlantic City Pop Festival at the racetrack, two weeks before Woodstock.

The caravan brought more than 55,000 people over its first two days (with an additional 30,000 expected Sunday), a lift to a town still stung by the loss of Miss America, the beloved institution that ran away to Vegas. Hey, who needs Miss A when you have DMB?

Indeed, the DMB hordes left their mark on a mostly bemused town with more than just a lost hacky sack, streaming over the closed-to-cars Albany Avenue bridge after the show in the joyous sea of people headed toward the ocean and sucking late-night nitrous balloons as residents such as Victor Saragosso, 65, watched on a folding chair. Police later reported multiple confiscated nitrous tanks.

"They're all high," Saragosso said. "It's in the balloons. It's the American way."

The festival turned the huge site, framed by water, windmills, Trump, and Borgata, into a lively three-staged festival with craft beers, Jose Garces food, eco-exhibits, dozens of bands, a sea breeze, and a pretty sunset during DMB's set.

The event turned the venerable Knife & Fork at Atlantic and Pacific into a $2 Budweiser beer stop, and a Boardwalk lot into a loopy tie-dyed tailgating venue.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-timey quartet, claimed the distinction of playing the first-ever encore at Bader Field, "Sourwood Mountain."

"It's great. Never been here before," singer Rhiannon Giddens said. "It's nice to see such a green space. Great use for it."

Green would be a bit of a stretch. Much of Bader is dust, some grass, and hot tarmac, and dirty feet became a Bader signature. But it's a spacious and scenic bayside spot, so natural that some assumed the DMB Ferris wheel was always at Bader.

"You guys should build a Ferris wheel here," said Sean Sparks, 32, of Syracuse, N.Y. In truth, officials have sought to build a casino.

Mayor Lorenzo Langford negotiated bringing the DMB Caravan to Atlantic City, one of just four locations. That led rapper Rick Ross to book the old Sandcastle baseball stadium, another desolate venue in need of life.

The event drew from near and far. Freedom Hopkins, 20, came from New Mexico and called the Bader site "perfect." "I love it," he said. "I never knew it existed."

Locals were charmed as well.

"I'm so happy they're finally making concerts here," said Mike Gollotto, 34, of Northfield, while noting the disconnect between the bluegrassy Punch Brothers on stage and the black concrete-y tarmac underfoot.

The Bader topography was instantly absorbed into music lore, as in "the crowd watching the excellent acoustic Dave [Matthews] and Tim [Reynolds] set Saturday afternoon stretched all the way to the tarmac."

Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne seemed to best fuse the spirit of this casino town and the DMB Caravan, foisting a big, white balloon filled with money onto the crowd, only to see it blown off course by the sea breeze. The true Atlantic City experience, watching offered cash float away, out of reach.

And like the hacky-sack dudes from Michigan, Coyne seemed confused by the geography. "The wind took it away toward the lake!" he shouted from the stage. Um, nope.

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453, arosenberg@phillynews.com, or @amysrosenberg on Twitter. Follow her at www.philly.com/downashore.

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