June 24-25, 2017
Festival behemoth AEG and Goldenvoice are at it again, launching the inaugural Arroyo Seco Weekend after years of negotiations with the City and citizens of Pasadena, securing a 10-year deal at Brookside Golf Course, adjacent to the Rose Bowl. It’s a family forward music festival with free entry for kids under 10, a relaxed park setting, good grub and libations and a first year lineup that was more than just respectable, it had personality. Mixing big name headliners (Tom Petty and Mumford & Sons), Fest friendly mid-tiers (Dawes, Alabama Shakes), some 90s love (The Shins, Live), a hefty does of New Orleans (The Meters, Galactic, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Revivalists), quite respectable jazz, soul and and blues (John Mayall, Charles Bradley, Bennie Maupin, Roy Ayers), and a number of indie comers, there was also a refreshing lack of EDM or rap/hip hop to the lineup. The price point was fair, and keeping the inaugural event to three stages and two days (three days are planned in the future), was probably a pretty smart move, even more so with record breaking heat on Sunday that felt more Coachella than DTLA proximate.
Freshman fests inevitably have a few rookie kinks and I was curious how ASW would stack up. The Brookside setting made for a real Saturday in the park feel. Kids rolling down grassy hills, lots of shade and trees, picnic tables and hammocks never far. Just as easy to chill with a picnic and a soundtrack, as to get close to the performances. With VIPers set off to the sides with their own bathrooms and food, and plenty of shade, GA ticket holders could get right up to the rail at both the big stages. Parking was easy to negotiate and a free pass was included with entry. Both nice touches. Many fests these days pitch their epicurean connection and ASW certainly played up theirs with craft brews proffered by the Draughtman’s Project and wow factor eateries (I’m talking to you Redbird, Republique and Broken Spanish) alongside more casual fare familiar to the native Pasa-Angelino. That said, Draughtman’s outlets like El Segundo (highly recommend the Mayberry IPA, btw) and Smog City, were tapped out by mid-afternoon, and food was on the pricey side. Not so good. Water refill stations were abundant and bottled water only $2, which helped with the heat, and food lines were almost non-existent. Two big stages anchored the layout (Oaks with the closing headliners, and Sycamore at the other end), with a more intimate tent (Willow) somewhere in between. However, Saturday was a mess for Petty. This first year, no other stages competed with the headliners and with blankets spread from edge to edge, circulation for the 25,000 or so got pretty nasty. Fortunately, adjustments were made for Sunday and the flow in and around the Oaks Stage was far more manageable. As the event grows, it would be reasonable to offset headliners with performances at other stages.
Discovery is essential to the best fests and our arrival Saturday didn’t disappoint. Jade Jackson and her band were kicking it at the Oaks Stage. The talented singer-songwriter from small town California (Santa Margarita, to be exact) covered the familiar tropes of heartbreak and tough times with freshness and conviction, while at the Sycamore Stage, the indie-tinged Haley, and her band spun gauzy, sonically textured and pretty darn cool tunes, undoubtedly shaped by the Minnesota scene where she’s spent much time. Bonus for me, visually arresting and some of my best shots of the weekend.
Bennie Maupin, an original Headhunter, brought his bass clarinet, but I wasn’t there by the time he busted it out. I’ve been totally enjoying the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in their new configuration and Cuban influenced “So It Is” material and they finished their set second lining through the Oaks Stage crowd. Jeff Goldblum went all Mildred Snitzer in the Willow Tent for the most packed performance there all weekend. Goldblum was his cheeky self and thoroughly enjoyed sharing the stage with the Snitzer Orchestra.
John Mayall looked damn good at 83 running through a pretty standard blues set at the Sycamore Stage. Live was not my thing, but had the crowd going and I missed what was supposed to be one of the best sets of the weekend by Broken Social Scene at the Sycamore Stage. Hometowner’s Dawes didn’t have to win anyone over, they were there from the start and I really do enjoy these guys. A lot of love for, and from, Charles Bradley at the Sycamore Stage. Reminiscent a bit of a male Sharon Jones, and like the late Jones, he recently battled cancer.
The resurgence of William Bell has been well worth the wait and he played to a far too small audience for his talents in the Willow Tent. Dapper and smiling ear to ear, it was a complete uplift for the lucky few who took it in. Not fair for Alabama Shakes to go opposite. Half serious. Brittany Howard and mates have deservedly found a large audience (though they played a sneak at the Roxy the night before) for their driving simmer and soul sound. The original Meters made a rare appearance outside of New Orleans on the Sycamore Stage and stringing “Fire on the Bayou”, “People Say” and “Cissy Strut” before leaning into “Come Together” are grooves that should just be bottled. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen them.
Petty and the Heartbreakers played a good two-plus hours of deepish tracks, with an emphasis on Petty’s “solo” work for much of the meat of the set, (including a 10 minute roll through “It’s Good to be King” that had Petty and Mike Campbell exchanging layers of solos between them, perhaps going on a little too long). The set has varied little throughout this 40-year victory lap of festivals, sheds and arenas, a tour that will finish back in L.A. with two nights at the Hollywood Bowl in September. I’m a fan and always thought TP and the Heartbreakers sounded like the best damn garage outfit ever from the get go, and I mean that as high praise. This tour has only solidified his stature among rock giants, and not just from the band’s endurance, but because the songs endure as well and his Arroyo Seco Weekend set was one big sing along.
Unlike Saturday’s cloud cover, Sunday was a total sizzler. Didn’t really get going until mid-day and was greeted by the highly entertaining East Bay funk of Con Brio in the Willow Tent, which reminded me of a very cheeky Tower of Power. Ziek McCarter’s animated energy could power a small town, if it were built on Stax influenced RnB. ZZ Ward sang of bad dudes, badder luck and the wrong end of a gun on the Oaks Stage that sounded like pure Texas, if she wasn’t from Oregon.
At the Sycamore Stage, The Revivalists are continuing to have their moment, swimming in the radio success of “Wish I Knew You”, a quieter gateway to the tempest David Shaw and company stir with every performance, laced with the accelerant of Ed Williams steely fire. I’ll say it again. While New Orleans may be their town, it ain’t their style, they’re just the best rock band from the Crescent City hands down. Master stringer David Lindley played to a few hundred in the Willow Tent turning his “Mercury Blues” encore on Hawaiian lap guitar into a screed on Costco fish.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real stepped out from their recent role as Neil Young’s compadres with their own pugnacious set at the Sycamore Stage, while guitar driven Jamtown (with Donovan Frankenreiter, G. Love, Cisco Adler and guest Duane Betts) was one of the genuine surprises of the weekend in the Willow Tent. Pasadenans, Michael Fitzpatrick and those Tantrums were quite happy to be playing in the ‘hood at the Oaks Stage. I departed for Andrew Bird at the Sycamore Stage only to circle back for the relentlessly tight jams of Lettuce in the Willow Tent. Weezer hit the Oaks Stage in full G’n’R regalia and the buoyant crowd mouthing every tune didn’t seem to mind.
By this time, the sun was receding and the temps just perfect for The Shins closing the Sycamore Stage, and Galactic’s late start in the Willow Tent made for a tough call getting to the pit for Mumford and Sons after Saturday’s cluster. As it turned out, with some improved routing and strategic rail placement, flow in and around the Oaks Stage for Sunday’s closer was smooth and easy to navigate. Good response to a pretty bad problem. This was my first Mumford show in all their passionate earnestness. Thoroughly enjoyable, though the deep and wide staging was a challenging shoot from the pit. With Galactic’s late start, I scurried back to the Willow Tent hoping the band was still going and they just kicked into a “Heart of Steel” encore that was scorching. And, yes, there was more, as we doubled back to catch a chunk of the rest of Mumford’s set from a hill afar and took in the breadth of the crowd.
All in all, well done Arroyo Seco Weekend. There were some glitches and a few areas need improvement, but this is a high quality, very relaxed fest with solid bookings and an authentic SoCal feel. Heck, just the Sunday Willow Tent lineup of Con Brio, David Lindley, Jamtown, Lettuce and Galactic is a fine day right there. Throw in strong headliners, newish talent, bucolic surroundings, family friendliness with easy access, and ASW can proudly stake its name as the Los Angeles based music festival the region has long waited for and can look forward to for years to come.