I’ve seen bands all over the world- in basements, on rooftops, in bar corners, in stadiums, in fields, on boats… but you can not pay me to go to Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonaroo. The festival experience is counterintuitive to my picture-perfect world view of how the live concert experience should be. But occasionally I am compelled to attend a day-long festival, if mood and line-up align. Festival curator Phil Pirrone promised this rock ‘n’ roll festival would be a can’t-miss.
I had intended on getting there early, but found myself stuck in a rut (and in traffic) and made it as 4 was inching towards 5. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club- who I had interviewed in anticipation of the festival– had announced that they had to pull out of the festival the day before due to the drummer needing to have brain surgery. Best wishes to Leah. The festival hadn’t made any sort of announcement regarding how that would affect the schedule, and they were one of my main draws.
I had seen Heart play this place a few weeks before. I wasn’t sure how a festival would play out in the space- a soulless, multi-use field surrounded by empty bleachers, a vacant track, and, the only redeeming quality, the picturesque, recently anointed National Monument- the San Gabriel Mountains.
I was curious about all of the heralded cool things the curator spoke of to complement the music at the festival. As I rounded the corner to the field, I was surprised to find a sparse layout with a carnival setup. It was like the Fairfax Flea Market and the LA County Fair had come together with some stages. The attendees were so spread out across the field that it felt empty. Within minutes, the day was already set to be not what I expected.
I hadn’t been given a map or set times upon check-in, but I took a guess and headed towards the stage featuring Tinariwen. At this point I can say that I’ve seen almost everything- but I have not seen anything like Tinariwen before. Saharan desert music calmed my nerves and wooed me into the communal experience that I’ve read a festival is supposed to be about. Hypnotic rhythm and bluesy guitar created something fresh and new to my ears despite the traditional dress before me. One of them asked the crowd “are you happy?” and everyone was smiling and I remembered how music is the real universal language. They made it easy to sweep away the nagging, sensationalist media thoughts of Ebola as I tried to determine how far away the Western Sahara is from Liberia. At one point I looked up and something was hovering over my head. I have no idea what it was- festival perk or UFO sighting?
Way across the field on the main stage was Band of Skulls, who I had heard of for years but had never seen, so I pried myself away to walk over and catch their final few songs. That’s what a festival is supposed to be about, right? Quantity. The threesome pounded out some powerful rock ‘n’ roll with pretty guitars. Their sound was loud and strong but I didn’t grasp onto any songs.
I wandered around a little bit, looking at empty, trendy vendor booths and cliche carnival food, and found myself at an off-to-the-side third stage to see Deap Vally. At my age, it’s impossible to watch new things in a vacuum: there is always something to compare it to. And I was having flashbacks to the Hole/L7 era of the mid ’90’s… only not as cool or edgy because I’m no longer 14. However, as I kept watching they kinda reeled me in a little with their catchy pop songs, as I realized the danger of those mid ’90s girl groups was replaced with the pop sensibilities of the ’60s girl groups, only in modern day hipster ‘I woke up like this’ dressings. Which prompted me to look around: festival fashion is at an all-time low.
Up next, back on the main stage, were The Black Lips. I’ve seen them several times but have yet to ‘get it’. Their seemingly intentionally sloppy garage rock is cute in a way but I don’t understand the enduring popularity. But, as usual, the crowd went bonkers, and people were clawing their way on stage and losing their collective minds. They had a saxophonist join them on stage, but I couldn’t hear her at all.
The final set of the night for me would be The Black Angels. Over the past almost 10 years, I’ve watched them grow from college project to a band with lots of fans and even their own festival. While I usually find their effects-driven sound dreamy and of another era and vibey to the point where I feel like I’m doing snow angels in shag carpet, this was probably the sloppiest show I’ve ever seen them play. That would be in part because the mix was so awful in the speaker that I was standing near, that I could hear every bum note from the bassist. However, by then my friends had finally arrived, and I enjoyed the rest of the crisp fall evening and headed back to LA at the sensible hour of 9pm.