Live Review: Oceans Calling Festival 2023

Photo by Ismael Quintanilla III

On a brisk fall weekend straddling the end of September and beginning of October, 40,000 fans descended upon the popular beach town of Ocean City, Md., to catch the last vestiges of summer and enjoy a lineup of pop and rock acts from across recent decades. The inaugural Oceans Calling Festival was set to launch last year, but it was washed out by Hurricane Ian. Undaunted, the event promoters elected to try again in 2023.

Headliners for Oceans Calling included Alanis Morisette, Third Eye Blind, Gin Blossoms, Sheryl Crow and the Wallflowers—acts who owned the radio airwaves in the mid-’90s, years before the invention of the iPod, when a three-disc CD player was considered high-tech. Joining them on the bill were artists popular during the early aughts, such as Incubus, Jack Johnson and Jimmy Eat World. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of attendees hailed from the boomer, Gen X and elder millennial generations. Many fans had their entire families in tow—grandparents and babies included. Due to both the weather and the crowd composition, this was not your typical festival with hordes of scantily clad females and burnt-faced college kids.

In the preceding months, hotels and Airbnbs on the island booked out for miles, and bike rentals flew off the rack. While the weather this weekend was not conducive to popping up an umbrella and laying out on the beach, the crowds felt summer-like in the seaside town. On a misty Friday afternoon, festival-goers roamed about the Ocean City boardwalk, noshing funnel cake, joining up with friends and biding their time until the performances got underway. 

Alanis Morissette photo by Dusana Risovic

As Oceans Calling kicked off, attendees streamed into the festival and swarmed the three stages that were perched on the sand, adjacent to the boardwalk. The festival grounds also encompassed the Jolly Roger Amusement Park, game kiosks, ice-cream shops and pizza joints on the actual boardwalk. It did not have the open, airy feel of a typical festival set up in a park or a field, but it certainly offered more entertainment and food options for the multi-generational family groups in attendance.

Late afternoon, bands like Slightly Stoopid and Third Eye Blind warmed up the crowd before Alanis Morisette took the stage. The iconic singer/songwriter, who was ubiquitous after releasing hit album Jagged Little Pill in 1995, preceded her set with a compilation of videos from the period of time when the spotlight on her was brightest: her cameo in Kevin Smith’s movie Dogma, appearances on late-night shows, SNL spoofs of her songs. But her 90-minute performance demonstrated why she was such a compelling rock star in the first place. Morisette bounded back and forth across the Sea Bright Stage, belting out songs such as “Hand In My Pocket” and “Head Over Feet” as the audience sang along to every word. Her distinct vocals were on display as she delivered the scalding “You Oughta Know” and the melodic “Ironic” and jammed out with her guitar and harmonica on “All I Really Want.” While she might not be in the public eye as frequently during today’s age of Instagram influencers and Spotify, she clearly retains her star power among the throngs of nostalgic fans who grew up with her music.

Gin Blossoms photo by Dusana Risovic

The second day of Oceans Calling brought another gloomy forecast, the atmosphere viscous with precipitation and humidity. As fans emerged onto the boardwalk that morning and grabbed coffee and pancakes at local breakfast establishments, everyone hoped for the clouds to part in time for the top-billed acts. Mother Nature did not cooperate, pelting the crowds with annoyingly persistent droplets throughout most of the day, intensifying into a downpour by the time Sheryl Crow took the stage in late afternoon. This drove many festival-goers into the arcades and stores on the boardwalk and packed people cheek-to-jowl under Oceans Calling’s single tented stage, where Matt & Kim were performing. Despite this, fans kept up their spirits, determined to watch their beloved artists play. 

Formed in Tempe, Ariz., nearly four decades ago, Gin Blossoms shot to the top of the charts in 1992 with “Hey Jealousy” and stayed there with subsequent hits off New Miserable Experience and follow-up Congratulations I’m Sorry. Their catchy pop-rock melodies were ever-present during my drives to and from school and soccer practice in the early 1990s. After breaking up in 1997, they reunited a few years later and continue to tour and make music together. On Saturday afternoon, Robin Wilson and the gang played a lively set, with offerings such as “Follow You Down” and “Found Out About You.” Anyone who listened to FM radio during the height of Gin Blossoms’ popularity could sing along to every word. Wilson was loose and interactive, throwing in tidbits like, “I wrote this song when I was sad, but after we sold four million records, that sadness went away”—probably for the benefit of the Gen Z-ers who didn’t know who the Gin Blossoms were. 

Dispatch photo by Charles Reagan

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, the first few albums and ensuing tours by Boston’s Dispatch built a cult following for these college-radio darlings with a unique style of reggae, funk, folk and ska. While they broke up and reunited several times as their individual members pursued solo careers, they put out several studio and live albums in recent years and graced the stage of Oceans Calling on Saturday afternoon, where they delighted fans with songs like “Open Up” and “Two Coins.”

Two of the groups whose entire album collections I owned in the early 2000s (I was a frequent customer of FYE at the mall) and whom I saw perform multiple times in high school (sporting tube socks, Vans and Manic Panic blue hair) played back-to-back on Saturday night. While both sets of band members were sprouting some gray, they were still as energetic as I remember.

Jimmy Eat World photo by Taylor Regulski

Jimmy Eat World rose with the popularity of emo and punk in the early 2000s after the band had established its melodic, emotional pop-rock sound with Clarity and Bleed American. While Jim Adkins and Co. consistently released music and toured in the intervening years, their most loyal fans were indoctrinated during that initial era. As I parked myself under the Carousel Stage tent for an hour awaiting their set, I met die-hard Jimmy fan Heather, sporting dark eyeliner and a Vans Warped Tour 2004 hat, who understood what it was like to have Jimmy Eat World as the soundtrack of her high-school years. When they emerged onstage, they did not disappoint. They played hits like “Sweetness” and “Pain” and reached back into their discography with songs such as “Blister” and “For Me This Is Heaven.” When they drifted into “Hear You Me,” they projected starry lights onto the ceiling, and their mournful lyrics elicited more than a few tears. The band ended its set with “Bleed American” and “The Middle,” throwing the crowd into a moshing frenzy.

Headed by the abs of frontman Brandon Boyd, Incubus has been riding an undulating wave of popularity since its inception more than 30 years ago. Incubus peaked in the early aughts when “Drive” pulled the band into the mainstream via radio and MTV play and landed Boyd in the pages of teen magazines. Incubus maintained mostly steady success after that but fell off the radar in recent years. The band returned to touring this year, hence its Oceans Calling appearance. Incubus’ sound has evolved from a more intense, metal style in its early years to rap/rock (S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and Make Yourself) to anthemic rock ballads (Morning View and A Crow Left Of The Murder…). All of those iterations were on display when the fivesome performed on the Rockville Stage as the rain and clouds finally dissipated. Heavy guitar riffs and soaring vocals traveled across a sea of people as Incubus belted out “Nice To Know You” and “Pardon Me,” then mellowed out with hit song “Dig.” Intergalactic visuals swirled in the background, thrilling the numerous marijuana smokers in the crowd. Incubus ended its set with “Drive” as Boyd and guitarist Mike Ensinger sat on the edge of the stage to serenade the audience.  

Incubus photo by Dusana Risovic

On the final day of Oceans Calling, the sun rose for the first time in about 14 weeks, to everyone’s relief. Kids were playing in the sand, surfers were catching waves, older couples were getting their 10,000 steps in on the boardwalk, and all was right in the world.

When they arrived on the scene a decade and a half ago, Fitz And The Tantrums filled a need for well-dressed retro power pop, with songs like “Moneygrabber” evoking the ’80s vibes of Hall & Oates and Rick Astley. Since, their sound has morphed into jingly empowerment ballads like “Let Yourself Free” and “I Just Wanna Shine” and motivational football-stadium staples like “Handclap.” On Sunday afternoon, the band—headed by vocalists Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs—performed a high-energy set, interacting with the audience before, during and after each song. They appealed to the crowd with call-and-response and encouraged their fans to “raise your hands” and “shake that moneymaker.”

Photo by Ismael Quintanilla III

Weezer helped close out Oceans Calling late Sunday as evening enveloped the festival grounds and the lights of the boardwalk and amusement park lit up the night sky. Playing under their trademark “flying W” logo, Rivers Cuomo and his bandmates served up a selection of hits from across their 30-year existence, including the summery “Island In The Sun” and fan favorites like the angsty “Say It Ain’t So” and “Hash Pipe.”

Considering last year’s Oceans Calling Festival was literally wiped out, pretty much anything would’ve been an improvement for the 2023 iteration. While the weather was not ideal at the outset, Sunday was beautiful enough to make it an enjoyable weekend. As festival-goers sang and danced, ate and drank, hung out with their families and played games, you could envision what the Oceans Calling organizers were initially going for. If the sky, sea and music gods cooperate, there will be an Oceans Calling 2024. 

—Maureen Coulter