DENVER – John Sullivan and Friends, a local band led by Denver resident John Sullivan, plays regularly at all the usual music venues around Lake Norman, but the band hosts one special gig each summer on the shores of Lake Norman’s Goat Island.
“I moved to Denver four or five years ago,” Sullivan said. “We bought a house on the lake with a dock, and the first thing we did was take the boat to go check out the island, and instantly I thought it would be a cool spot for a little concert venue.”
Sullivan filed the idea away for some time before eventually pitching it to the local game warden, whom he had built a friendship with.
“I asked him if it was something that might be possible,” Sullivan said. “He told me Duke Energy owns the island, so as long as we agreed to abide by the rules of no firearms, alcohol sales or fires on the island, it wouldn’t be an issue since it’s a family-friendly property.”
That’s the origin story of the Dog Island Jam, which got its start in 2016 and is set for its fourth installment July 27.
“We started it up and the first year we had maybe 200 people come out,” Sullivan said. “We’re not really doing anything special, but it just happened to become something where people like to come watch us. We use a generator, so it’s not like we’re doing anything too crazy since people have that kind of stuff out there all the time on their daily outings. The only difference is we set up speakers off of that generator and make some music.”
The band hasn’t caught any flack for its use of the island as a concert venue, but even if that day does arrive, Sullivan says he wouldn’t fight it.
“There are boats that drive by sometimes that are louder than us, so I don’t really think there’s a sound issue,” he said. “I feel like most of the people in the community appreciate it because they come up to us at other gigs and ask about Dog Island all the time. But even if we did get shut down, I understand it’s a privately owned island, so if the day comes when they have something to say, it is what it is. It’s been a lot of fun so far and we hope to keep it going.”
The annual show has become a hit among those who live on the lake, with the crowd growing in each of the first three years.
“Last year, there were probably about 200 boats that pulled up to watch and maybe 600 people on island, so we’re starting to draw a pretty good crowd,” Sullivan said. “We get great feedback and a lot of people ask if we’ll ever make it bigger with more bands and sponsors, but with it being a private island we want to keep it small. We’re just trying to fly under the radar enough to where we can continue to play music out there. We’re not trying to make a huge scene. It’s just fun for us to get together and jam on the island.”
While Sullivan has no intention of turning the show into a full-on festival with other bands involved, he’s invited another local artist to come out and play alongside his band on the island this year.
“It’s always just been the four of us, but this year we’ll be joined by Cito Giulini, who’s played in Charlotte with a bunch of different bands for a number of years,” Sullivan said. “His guitar has a great sound, and he’s heavily influenced by the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia, so he’s going to join the ranks with us out there and play the lead. He and Ryan Winters, who plays the keyboard for us, really play off each other well with a cool funk-jazz-rock approach to music, so we’ll be able to put a different twist on some of the covers we play.”
John Sullivan and Friends is more than a cover band, however. The four-man ensemble, which consists of Sullivan, Winters, Dustin Howell on drums and Jonathan Norcom playing bass guitar, has been in the studio throughout the past year working on a debut album.
“We’re actually going to release ‘Night Train,’ the first single off the record, on the day of the Dog Island Jam,” Sullivan said. “The EP will have six songs on it, and it’s being mixed right now, so it should be ready for release some time in mid-August, I would imagine.”
Sullivan describes the group as a “jam band,” a group whose concerts typically feature extended musical improvisation over rhythmic grooves and chord patterns, and long sets of music that can often cross genre boundaries.
“We like our jam-band stuff, obviously, but when we go into that stuff the guys I play with like their funk, so there’s definitely that jazz-rock emphasis,” he said. “Winters on the keys really adds something special because he has a certain sound, so we kind of build our songs around what he sounds like on those keys. Our sound is kind of like the Grateful Dead meets the Dave Matthews Band meets Jack Johnson. It’s that kind of style, if you can imagine something like that.”
The Dog Island Jam is free, but the island, just south of Governor’s Island, is only accessible by boat. While food and alcohol sales aren’t allowed, audience members are welcome to bring their own snacks and drinks for a day spent on the island.
The show is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, July 27, on Goat Island.
For more information, visit the “John Sullivan & Friends” Facebook page or the “Dog Island Jam 4” event page on Facebook.