At the Regent on Friday night, I talked to a young girl from Seattle, who had flown for the weekend to see Tools and the Black Lips, and when she learned about this brand new festival in Pasadena, she immediately got interested. ‘Yeah’, she told us, ‘the scene is pretty much dead in Seattle’. One thing is certain, the LA scene isn’t dead, new festivals and music events are born every day, and Arroyo Seco weekend was the last one in date.
Each festival brings its new identity, we have the 100,000-attendee-major-headliners festival, the star of all festivals, Coachella, happening each year in Indio, then we have the more recent FYF fest with its wild punk spirit happening downtown LA during the summer, and now we have Arroyo Seco Weekend, a ‘haut de gamme’ fest in the beautiful Pasadena, with an impressive choice of food selection from upscale restaurants, serving lobster rolls, orange chicken, or fried mozzarella, accompanied by wine tasting and custom-cocktails booths. I personally don’t go to a festival to have gourmet food but it seems that the crowd was really into that ‘eat, relax, drink, enjoy’ kind of attitude… while listening to music from afar.
The first thing that struck me was the very familial aspect of the festival, people were moving around with chairs, toddlers in hand and picnic baskets, many of them sat on blankets, after opting for one of the three stages and getting ready for the day. This was not a FYF fest crowd, not the type to press you against the barricade till you suffocate, and certainly not the type to crowd surf or stage dive, not that there was even one act for that kind of punk behavior! But this is also NOT how I play a festival, I go from stage to stage, I fight each time to get in the front, I walk miles and miles without drinking enough in a 90ºF heat, and relax is not even in the picture. So that’s my personal approach and I was not in synch with the majority of the crowd as I had to step on too many blankets for my own comfort, but what else could I have done?
The festival had a big turn out for a first edition, 25,000 people showed up on Saturday according to the LA Times, and probably about the same amount on Sunday, that sea of people for Mumford and Sons was trulls impressive. The location was beautiful and green, contrarily to the desert Coachella or too-much-concrete FYF’s new location, and the organizers didn’t have much to do to turn the place into a spacious and clean environment, which was trashed by the end of the day, but that’s always the deal after a festival.
So I neglected a lot of parallel activities and concentrated on the music as always, managing to see many artists in two days, and, like the rest of the festival and its upscale taste, the choice of music was classy and classic. I don’t remember to have seen that many jazz bands anywhere else, as I managed to see funk-jazz-fusion Roy Ayers, The Bennie Maupin Ensemble, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, which were all jazz bands with different inspirations, but probably foreign from your average pop rock festival lineup.
If I am not a jazz aficionado, I found Preservation Hall Jazz Band to be truly great with horn galore, a New Orleans spirit, and a sort of jungle-fever Louis Armstrong trumpet, they played a joyous set with plenty of interactions with the happy crowd. They were overdressed in this hot sunshine but looked good till the end. Jeff Goldblum did a Tom Petty trivia with his unique sense of humor before embarking in a bossa-nova cover of ‘American Girls’ with the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra and a series of lounge jazz style with a Ella-Filtzgerald-inspired vocalist. And may be it’s the effect of LaLaLand, but people seemed to be really into jazz.
I like the fact they had booked a large range of styles and artists from all ages, like the young Jade Jackson, produced by Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, singing semi upbeat semi sad country-ish songs mentioning loneliness, or the Mineapolis-based Haley, with her rocking loops overlapped by beautiful melodies going to Harrison-esque guitars and dreamy vocals. But they also had true veterans like British blues-pioneer John Mayall, (his 60’s band the Bluesbreakers included many famous guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya and Buddy Whittington) playing like a white B.B. King with a thinner voice and going from keys to guitar to harmonica.
Most of the music was meant to be upbeat and bright, like ball of fire Avery*Sunshine, whose gospelic songs with wobbling keys were channeling Aretha Franklin’s, or this band Live on the large Oaks stage, covering Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’ and making it sound like a powerful bright anthem, or indie band Broken Social Scene, one of the rare FYF-fest-type-of-bands overlap, bringing an exuberant and buoyant sound empowering a young crowd with a sort of burgeoning-Arcade-Fire vibe.
Early evening, the crowd got denser and it became very difficult to circulate between all these blankets, a woman who assured me that she had been to festivals before, told me she had never seen anything like that, ‘I want my money back’, she told me, it’s too crowded!’ I am not sure what she expected, a crowded music festival is a successful one, but yes, I could barely see anything during Dawes’ set on the Oaks stage. I had seen them in a very intimate setting just a few months ago, for an acoustic set at the Hotel Cafe, and they were surely rocking harder this time, with their signature big vocal harmonies at the top of their roots-y music. However, no matter how they tried, they never sounded like a rock band. May be they didn’t want to, but why putting them on the largest stage though?
After an emotional Charles Bradley looking thinner in a black jumpsuit and thanking the crowd for the support while exorcizing his battle with cancer in a cathartic set of Otis-Redding-like soul, blues and sweat, I was ready for another deep emotion with Brittany Howard and her fantastic Alabama Shakes. She was at ease in the heat with her black thighs and colorful dress and could go from the softest murmur to some immense, intense, raw, visceral bombast howl. She is the real deal, an unexpected frontwoman with original grooves and fantastic shrieks to give you chills on a hot summer night, genuinely building that very special and emotive connection with the crowd.
After her set, there was no way I would have moved, I had a relatively good spot to see the hero of the day, Tom Petty, and I didn’t move much, except to get a bit closer. I never got too close, there simply were too many people, but I had a clear view most of the time. Tom and the Heartbreakers were fantastic, playing all the hits and beyond, ‘You Don’t know How It Feels’. I Won’t Back Down’, ‘Freefallin’’, ‘Yer so Bad’ and of course “American Girl’. Petty certainly knows about a crowd-pleaser set, but he also transcends genres and ages – the young guy on my right was doing air-piano all set long.
Petty was going through his huge catalogue with ease, celebrating a 40-year-old career in a tour (and this concert was part of it), going from ‘Rockin’ Around (With You),’ which he introduced as the first song on the Heartbreakers’ first album, to more recent and very familiar tunes. ‘You were not around’, he said while addressing a young person standing front row, ‘but you Sir,… were around’, pointing to another person. Tom Petty’s music is so enduring that, after all the different types of music I’ve heard during the whole weekend, I had a few Tom Petty’s tunes stuck in my head on Monday, impossible to erase, impossible to forget. It’s good to be the king and Petty was undoubtedly the king of Arroyo Seco, unifying all generations in a classic set. May be Arroyo is not at Coachella-FYF level yet, where surprise guests make a sudden apparition for a song with the headliner – actually I will save this for tomorrow and the beautiful set by the Shins – but it was the festival first edition, and we have to let it grow a bit. I am still surprised by all these blankets and chairs in front of the main stage though, they wasted so much space! I am aware that it was supposed to be the tone of the festival, a relax-sit-enjoy ambiance, but it was also a rock concert and you can’t have it all. At one point you have to drop your lobster rolls and stand up for the music.
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