The Freeman Stage at Bayside could not have picked a better act to show off their new stage last Saturday than the Tedeschi Trucks Band. The 2,600-person venue was filled with devotees who got what they came for and new enthusiasts who were rightly amazed.
As Mark Banaszak, a long-time Freeman volunteer and music lover posted on Facebook, “Never seen the Freeman rocked like that… EVER!!! The new stage is fabulous. Everyone had an amazing time.”
In fact, without the new stage, an act like Tedeschi Trucks would not have signed up to come to West Fenwick. They are a national touring, 12-piece roots band whose music ranges from R&B belters to gentle ballads to gospel. They are led by power-vocalist Susan Tedeschi and her husband, master guitarist Derek Trucks. Each member of the band brings unique and incredible talent.
Opening for Tedeschi Trucks were Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett, the two surviving members of the beloved band Little Feat.
The new stage replaced the original, which first appeared on the lawn in the early era of Bayside in 2008. It bore the iconic signature of regional real estate developer Joshua Freeman, who died tragically in a helicopter accident in 2006.
It became a source of inspiration for Michelle Freeman, president and chairman of the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation. She foresaw, through the stage, a way to honor her late husband’s memory by bringing the arts to everybody in Sussex County, thus elevating the human spirit.
But this 10th season is different. “The little stage that could,” as it was commonly called, has withstood its last performance. It was a community-built, wooden, 20-by-40-by-14-foot, primitive piece of beloved local Americana. It has been replaced by a larger, sleek, portable, high-tech stage, known in the entertainment industry as an SL 320.
“We started to think we may have to replace the stage about four years ago, when we started bringing in bigger acts,” said Patti Grimes, executive director of the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation.
“At first, we tried to be creative. We added ‘wings’ to each side of the stage and rearranged the landscaping, but we could never overcome the limitations caused by its low height and minimal weight-bearing capability. The requirements of the national acts just outweighed our stage’s reality.”
“When the advancement production crews showed up before each performance, some were concerned by our physical limitations, in comparison to what they were accustomed,” said Grimes.
Nevertheless, the artists raved about the hospitality provided by Grimes and her team.
“We really take care of our artists, and we work as hard as we can with their production staff. As a result, many have returned for repeat performances, and many have recommended us to their colleagues,” she said.
However, in their effort to make things work operationally, there became increasing concern about how safe the little stage was for artists and also for audiences and staff.
As an example, Doug Phillips, the foundation’s creative and digital experience manager, talked about the large screen upon which some performances are projected in order for audiences to better view the show.
“I don’t think a lot of people realized that the screen hung from a rented forklift. It was alright, but something I held my breath about,” he said. “Likewise, because the stage was not high enough for proper lighting, we had to place the lighting on the grass, in the midst of the audience. Again, it was safe enough, but far from ideal.”
The final decision for a new stage was made by the Freeman Foundation’s Board of Directors in 2016. All agreed that the work to bring the project to fruition must be completed in time to have a full season in 2017.
They succeeded, and along with the SL 320 has come a tall metal T-shaped LED pole for video projection, which has been firmly cemented into the ground adjacent to the stage. Another improvement is the replacement of worn-down sod with Bermuda grass, over-seeded with rye grass, which is a sturdier type of grass intended for fields and festivals.
Sue Katz is another long-term Freeman Stage volunteer. She said she was particularly impressed with the improved sound facilitated by the new stage.
“In the past, we had speakers on the side aisles, which meant the volume of sound depended on where you sat,” she said. “I just talked to a family from Pittsburgh who extended their vacation for this concert. They’ve heard Tedeschi Trucks numerous times, and they said the band sounded just like they should. I thought that was a great compliment to the new stage.”
“I’m absolutely loving it,” said Taylor Knox, lead singer and guitarist with the local band Human Connection. “I came by myself and bought an expensive ticket so I could sit up front and focus on the music. The sound is right on, and the lighting is just right — not distracting, but mood-setting. And, of course, the level of musicianship is amazing.”
Knox found his eye occasionally wandering off to the right, across the lake and over the fountain to the Cove restaurant and clubhouse. That’s where he and his fiancée, Kelly Kovach, are getting married next year.
Lisa Caroff and her son, Connor Hartman, live in Dagsboro and are avid Tedeschi Trucks fans. Back in February, they had traveled to see them play in Washington D.C. Connor is autistic, and his mom always tries to make every occasion as special as possible. At the Freeman Stage, she wanted Connor to meet his very favorite band.
“I sent a couple of emails earlier, but hadn’t heard anything,” she said. “So when we arrived, I kept talking to people, like the sound guys and Freeman folk, and then Chris Trucks, Derek’s dad, who told me he thought they would really like that.”
Chris Trucks, who travels with the band and manages their merchandise tent, said later about his son, “He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t have to — his music speaks for him.” After all, the former Allman Brothers Band musician is listed by Rolling Stone as No. 16 of the 100 best guitarists in the world.
Both Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi sat down comfortably and talked with Connor after the show. They said they were impressed by his knowledge of music and may have hinted that a return visit to the Freeman Stage may be in order. Trucks even gave Connor one of his guitar slides as a keepsake.
“Connor told Derek he has a really big beard,” said Caroff. “It was so funny, because then Susan told him it sometimes makes him hard to kiss! They were so nice to us.”
Caroff also mentioned that Steve Combs, a Little Feat roadie, had taken particular interest in Connor and had given him a copy of the show’s set list so he could know what song was coming up next — a real treasure.
When the goal to complete all the work for the installation the new stage was met, there was a Blessing of the Stage attended by the Freeman Foundation Board and employees on May 11th. As part of the celebration, each attendee anonymously wrote their hope for the Stage on a small card, which was put in a time capsule.
On one of the cards was written: “My vision for this stage is for it to be a vehicle for JOY — for the Artist and the Audience. The Freeman Stage should be a place where all people are welcome, and a place where employees flourish and grow.”
There is no doubt that on June 17 joy abounded.
For more information about the 2017 season at the Freeman Stage, go to their website at www.freemanstage.org.