Photo and Article Credit: L. Paul Mann
The second annual Arroyo Seco music festival took place on the third longest day of the year, Saturday, June 23rd, bringing in the summer concert season in grand style. The two-day festival was organized by Goldenvoice, the same organization responsible for the most auspicious festival in the country, Coachella. The Arroyo Seco festival was held in a beautiful tree-lined meadow, just outside the Rose Bowl, in the affluent suburbs of Pasadena. The event seems to be modeled after the one-off mega concert, Desert Trip, which was held in 2016 at the Coachella festival site. That concert which featured six of the biggest acts in classic rock, was one of the most sophisticated festival events in history, featuring a massive stage, sound system, and media screens. The festival offered up copious amounts of high-end beverages and gourmet food for sale. The Arroyo Seco event features three stages much more modest than the gargantuan one in the desert, but all with quality sound. The food and beverage stands were similar, with dozens of gourmet restaurants represented and various bars offering up a variety of spirits. Food and drinks were expensive but not outrages at least by California standards. There were so many booths offering up the goodies spread across the sprawling festival grounds, there always seemed to be a spot to grab food or drink without a line.
The event was reconfigured this year to make it more comfortable to move about and find a good spot to watch the action. Large walkways were cordoned off and patrolled by a large security force to allow easy access to the facilities as well as the music stages. An area in front of each stage was designated standing room, while tree-lined and the hilly regions in the back were reserved for concert goers to lounge on blankets and chairs. The result was a festival that felt much like a giant summer picnic with about 25,000 of your closest friends. In many ways, the event felt like a throwback to the 70’s style music festival. While much of the crowd was older than a typical festival crowd, the event really was a family affair with many couples pushing baby carriages, followed by grandparents reliving their former concert-attending days. Most every other generation was also in attendance. The music was an eclectic mix of classic rock, modern rock, and jazz, representing multiple generations and genres. What most of the bands shared at the two-day music extravaganza was an amazingly high level of musicianship.
By the time a true legend of free-form jazz, the 77-year-old saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, took the smaller Willow stage, the tented venue was nearly full of seemingly passionate jazz lovers. The experimental sax master has been recording music since 1964 and began playing with the illustrious John Coltrane a year later. The tented stage became a steamy sauna in the midday sun, further heated by sweaty gyrating bodies and the incredible musical offerings of Sanders and his band of jazz masters. Meanwhile, the veteran Delta blues-rock band, North Mississippi Allstars, were bringing their own fiery brand of music to a large crowd in front of the Sycamore stage. The stage was flanked by a line of booths featuring local charities and even a coffee stand which offered up free iced and hot coffee all throughout the festival. The main Oaks stage came alive just a little bit later, with the inspiring music of Brazilian guitarist and singer Seu Jorge and his band of world music masters. The group even featured a backing rap beat artist, which was the closest the festival came to actual hip-hop offerings.
Back in the Willow Tent, actor and musician Jeff Goldblum and The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra were running late due to technical issues. But that didn’t stop Goldblum from coming onstage and entertaining the crowd. He started with a mime routine. Then after finally getting handed a working microphone, he broke into a 10 minute stand up comedy routine which had the crowd screaming their approval. At one point he asked everyone to sing their respective national anthems at the same time. Later he asked everyone to sing their favorite Beatles song all at the same time. His comedy routine continued into his set of respectable jazz while leading a talented band. He played piano, sang and chatted up the crowd much to their delight. The Sycamore stage featured a set by the Austin Americana music maven Shakey Graves. He began his set in his one-man band persona before being joined by his back up band. He had a large crowd dancing in the mid-afternoon sun. Saxophone player Kamasi Washington brought another great jazz band to the festival, including a special guest on Clarinet, his father, Rickey. While Pharaoh Sanders brought his Septuagenarian knowledge of jazz to the event, Washington offers up a fresh new take on experimental jazz, that had music fans dancing en masse at the Oaks stage.
The Milk Carton Kids brought a much mellower vibe to late afternoon festival loungers. The young folk duo has released 4 albums since 2011, the first two for free. The crisp vocals are reminiscent of 60’s and 70’s folk-rock bands like Crosby Stills and Nash. It was a perfect setting to sit and sip a beverage or eat a gourmet bite.
It was a much more hectic scene in front of the main Oaks stage as a huge crowd passed towards the front to hear Chrissy Hynde and the rock band The Pretenders. The group that started as a punk rock band in 1979 produced a string of hit songs mostly in the 80’s. Hynde and her trademark voice are intact, and although she wasn’t as animated and confrontational as in the old punk days, she turned in a brilliant performance. It was also good to see the original drummer, Martin Chambers back in the band, the only other surviving member of the original band. The band played classics like “Thumbelina,” Hynde sported a shirt that said “Don’t Pet Me I’m Working,” in line with her firebrand image. The crowd responded enthusiastically, singing along to many of the songs.
Scottish rocker Belle and Sebastian and their entourage brought a mellower beat indie rock sound as the brilliant summer sun began to set. It was a perfect vibe for a relaxing sit-down show, with music fans swarming the surrounding hills on chairs and blankets. Back at the main Oaks stage, the crowd swelled again for the sunset performance by guitar wizard Jack White. It was nice to see White in the warm embrace of the setting sun. His current “Blue” tour usually takes place at night under an eerie unchanging blue lightscape that creates more mood than visual substance. White began with wailing guitar, playing songs from his relatively obscure new album “Boarding House Reach.” The crowd came alive at the end of the set when White ended with the more familiar “Seven Nation Army” and “Steady as She Goes.”
As evening fell the English Ska music pioneers, The Specials played a dance-infused set, full of political diatribes. The jabs at Trump weren’t surprising coming from a band that helped break racial barriers back in England. Although the bands’ members have aged considerably, their set sounded timeless and as the most fun to dance to the entire first day.
Neil Young, who has been rumored to be retiring soon, played the final set of the evening, with his latest touring band, The Promise of The Real. It was no surprise that the rock icon granted the biggest crowd of the day. He began the set with a monumental guitar jam, opening with a 20-minute version of “Like an Inca,” from the 1982 album “Trans.” Young struggled with some technical issues but soldiered on. “It’s a banner night for playing songs in the wrong key,” he said, before giving up on one song mid-tune.“My God, I can see the reviews,” he lamented. He eventually got back on track and turned in a two-hour set full of classic songs. He even let band member Lukas Nelson take over lead duties and sing one of his tunes from The Promise of The Real catalog. The son of Willie Nelson, Lukas is a great singer and a guitar wizard in his own right. The set list included fan favorites like “Lotta Love” to the fiery protest song “Ohio.” He also played a gem from Buffalo Springfield’s catalog, “I Am a Child,” dedicating it to the “Families that we really do care about.” Many exhausted fans didn’t make it back to their cars until nearly midnight, with less than 12 hours left to the first sets of day 2.