September 16-18, 2016
KAABOO is an art and food festival with a serious music problem – a weekend away with a killer soundtrack. With a year to percolate since last year’s inaugural, KAABOO again flashed musical diversity, tasty cuisine, artisanal liquids, five-story art, good humor and an abundance of creature comforts around the historic Del Mar Fairgrounds. It’s an event and region meant for each other.The brainchild of entrepreneur Bryan Gordon, KAABOO is also a refreshing break from the AEG, Goldenvoice and Live Nation events that dominate much of the festival landscape. Sophomore KAABOO was not without its hiccups, but its place in the California festival landscape is certainly secure. Aerosmith saw to that.
The unlikely pairing of Macy Gray and Chris Isaak kicked off the event Thursday night for those with “Amplify” passes. Her set was frothy, funky, full of sexuality and maybe a little lost on the not so danceable crowd, while his was schmaltzy, entertaining and well rehearsed with his band of 30 years (and the guy can still hit all the high notes of “Wicked Game” without flinching and probably ages slower than the rest of us). Not to mention there was so much good food being sampled beforehand, I’m pretty sure my appetizers had appetizers.
Friday headliner Jimmy Buffett, followed a crowd pleasing set by Hall & Oates. Not especially original, but well received by all. Digital backdrops put Corona commercials to shame while Buffett and his band gave their rum soaked all to “Volcano” a “Brown Eyed Girl” cover, “Tiki Bar is Open”, “Come Monday”, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” and more and more. The fins came out and the hangovers undoubtedly accumulated. Those Hall & Oates hits still get stuck in my head, while Oates flashed some serious guitar chops. But the best of Friday was on the undercard, including L.A’s own The Record Company, the blues trio format earning their buzz ahead of a Fall headlining gig at the El Rey. The Crescent City represented with Dumpstaphunk’s early afternoon set at the main Sunset Cliffs Stage. Stanky phunk like no one else. And, early to mid-day acts are a great catch at this stage. Anyone can get close, stretch out and hang with ease. The Americana coupling of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst with a hint of White Stripes punkyness (aka Shovels & Rope) at the backyardy Trestles Stage was excellent. And then there was St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Dripping with their Southern soul roots, Paul Janeway and his Alabama pals and horn section just get into your bones (yeah, pun intended). In no time, Janeway went from preacher to all lusty heartbreak, a powerhouse with punctuation at all the right moments. Only around a few years, Paul & Bones are well travelled fest vets and I could see an Alabama Shakes type rise for these guys.
Aerosmith was one of the bands Bryan Gordon first wanted to book, but schedules conspired last year. Landing them this year was a bit of a coup, especially with no other dates on calendar. Ah, but before the main attraction, came the kind of acts that win me over, like San Diegan Karl Denson and his Tiny Universe getting tight, tight, tight at the Sunset Cliffs Stage. Then two of my personal favorite singer songwriters together, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle playing to maybe 100 folks, while beating down the occasional bleed from Lenny Kravitz, and the requisite rock star poses, crunchy guitars and sassy horns captured by this photographer. Between the many 90s acts, so far, (Sugar Ray, Third Eye Blind, Gin Blossoms et al), strolling through the Palate + artWork space took on the vibe of a warehouse scale gallery opening, with abundant food and spirit options always in reach (though more seating options are needed). artWork is also overseen by Ariel Gordon (Bryan’s daughter) and makes KAABOO that much more of a family affair.
Back to Aerosmith. More of a guilty pleasure, and of course, so many tunes carved in stone. Viewed them as more of a poor man’s (fill in the blank), but always had a closet appreciation for the nasty boy rockers. Let’s just say Aerosmith kicked serious ass at KAABOO. Their set was a consummate rock performance and in a world of a kindler, gentler Who, Aerosmith’s snarl was there from start to finish (Daltrey, Townsend and company could take a page from their playbook). This was swagger you bought all in. Launching through a hit laden set from the “Back in the Saddle” and “Love in an Elevator” openers, to the “Walk this Way”, “Train Kept a Rollin’” closers, to the “Dream On” (Steve Tyler behind a white grand and all) and “Sweet Emotion” encores, these boys still got their stones.
My one foray into Humor Me for Sarah Silverman was disappointing. And I wasn’t even among the throng that didn’t get in. After sharing her own personal health scare (which was harrowingly honest), she spent 20 minutes or so shaming a table in the front row for texting and taking pictures. While I appreciate performers upset by the digitally obsessed, it went on way too long and took away from the bits that followed. I laughed more with Brian Posehn, a frequent collaborator of Silverman’s, in his warm up and intro. At least I missed the kerfuffle outside the Encore Stage, which required law enforcement to step in, due to capacity issues and poor set timing. Best chalked up to lessons learned and never to be repeated. For what it’s worth, by the time I was out of Humor Me, you would never know anything like that had transpired.
Sunday was very rootsy with Shakey Graves, Jason Isbell and The Avett Brothers on tap before closer Jack Johnson. Shakey Graves jagged Americana sounds like no one else. Solo or with full band he can rain hellfire or whisper in your ear. Jason Isbell is one of the most important songwriters around, having followed up one brilliant project (2013’s “Southeastern”) with another (2015’s “Something More Than Free”). I like my sadness multi-colored and with the 400 Unit at his back , Isbell’s tunes like “24 Frames”, “Something More Than Free”, “Speed Trap Town” and “Decoration Day” fit the bill. A funny shout out to Cheech and Chong (performing later) assured us he really is a happy guy and he was all smiles with his bandmates. Definitely a weekend highlight. The Avetts drew as much from their back pages as their new album, “True Sadness”, with a very generous set (and I didn’t miss the harder production sounds of the new album in the live setting). A lot of love from the crowd for the Bros. Indie rockers Cold War Kids closed out the Trestles Stage to their devoted and then my Sunday came to a close with the ever mellow Jack Johnson at Sunset Cliffs. By that time, I was pretty KAABOOed and had eyes on the exit and our journey back up I-5.
Once again, KAABOO won me over. While there are some kinks to be worked out (fix pedestrian bottlenecks, stagger sets, control stage capacity) and the lineup had too much filler for my taste, the nuggets below the headliners, the mix of art and food and music, the creature comforts and the general vibe and fan experience, will all bring me back. There’s nothing like it in SoCal and the Gordon family are committed stewards to the event. That it was Aerosmith who turned it around for me, is quintessential KAABOO. Point well taken, KAABOO. Nicely done.