June 26, 2018
Arroyo Seco 2018
In recent years, smaller festivals have been popping up over the summer across the country to compete with destination mega-players like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza. Arroyo Seco in California is one such event that draws mainly on nostalgia in lieu of rising sensations. Fittingly, I went with my dad for the ultimate father-son rock experience.
Located at the iconic Rose Bowl complex, Arroyo Seco boasted a line-up of classic rock icons, 80s and 90s hitmakers, and a few up and coming stars. It was rather low-key on the festival scale, but still showed signs of promise and unforgettable moments. Saturday started off with bossanova vibes courtesy of Sea Jorge who saw a rather small crowd gather towards the main stage for his early afternoon set. His Brazilian jazz making for a great afternoon of easy vibes. Over in the tent, celebrity turned jazz musician Jeff Goldblum (seriously) gathered a crowd to watch him entertain himself by giving the crowd some good laughs and some audience participation where he asked the crowd to sing lyrics from their favorite artists of the weekend before playing Neil’s classic “Harvest Moon” for his own delight. One of the few modern acts on the bill, Kamasi Washington was in great form in front of his hometown crowd and his backing band really heightened his late afternoon set. Between his dueling drummers and fantastic stand-up bass player, it was a real joy to witness Washington play tracks off his new record Heaven and Earth as well as hits from his phenomenal debut, The Epic. The Pretenders took the main stage next and Chrissie Hynde and company unleashed one of the best sets of the weekend. Her voice sounded incredible and the guitarist was one of the highlights of their set, ripping through solos that really took songs to the next level. “I’ll Stand By You” was rather exceptional and Chrissie’s comments between songs provided some of the best interludes of the weekend. "It's hard playing such melancholic music in sunny California" charmed Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch during his band's later afternoon set over on the Sycamore Stage. The band's sinister lyrics and twee infused melodies made for a charming performance As the sun began to set, Jack White kicked off his high energy set that ranged from classics across his career in the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather. It was a blues rock explosion that started out a bit muddled, but eventually saw Jack shake off the dust and really rip apart his tracks. There were some fun surprises along the way too, such as him taking over drumming duties for the White Stripes’ track “My Doorbell” and of course other hits like “Hotel Yorba,” “We Are Gonna Be Friends,” and “The Hardest Button to Button” really saw stellar reactions from the crowd. “Steady As She Goes” was probably the most surprising moment of the night and really amped up the audience and of course closing with the monstrous stadium-rocker “Seven Nation Army” was a full on eruptive experience. On the other side of the grounds, the Specials drew-in a big crowd for their first-wave ska revival set that sparked classic two-tone riffs for one of the more upbeat and dance floor ready shows of the day. A pointed "A Message to You Rudy" was sent right to Trump as the crowd cheered along in support. Closing out the night, Neil Young and the Promise of the Real treated fans to a set of career-spanning highlights as well as a few hiccups that only Neil could probably deliver. Starting off with a sprawling, twenty-minute rendition of "Like an Inca" from 1982's Trans felt a bit off, really throwing the crowd for a loop and following it with “Fuckin’ Up” from the underrated Ragged Glory didn’t do much to set the proper tone for the crowd. However, he then turned things around with a great rendition of “Cortez the Killer” before taking a few more missteps like letting his backing band play two of their own tracks. However, once he shook off some rust, it was a parade of hits that made for the peak of the entire weekend. “This one is by an old local band” he exclaimed before diving into Buffalo Springfield’s “I am a Child” and segued nicely into “Lotta Love” which he dedicated to the families being separated at the border. After a brief acoustic stint, it was back to the heavy classics as he tore through “Rocking’ in the Free World,” “Hey Hey, My My,” and my personal favorite “Powderfinger” (a song that always seems larger than life and was a truly transcendent moment for me, personally). For the encore, he kicked off with the CSNY staple “Ohio” before a launching into a beautifully, blown-out “Down by the River.” He capped things off with another classic “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” as he left the night fueled by an unbelievable comeback and really lived up to being The Godfather of Grunge. It was a raw and powerful showing, one where Neil really leaned into it, extending songs and taking his classics to new heights. His band, featuring Willie Nelson’s sons, also really took to the mood and helped Neil carry out his legendary work by adding extra volume, but never stealing the spotlight. There was also something remarkably special about getting to see Neil with my dad who is the person who turned me on to him while I was growing up and hearing our collective favorites was unforgettable.
Sunday seemed a bit more relaxed and really banked on the nostalgia factor. The Violent Femmes played an early afternoon set that saw them capitalize on their lo-fi hits “today we’re gonna just go with the literal meaning of the this song” they said as they tore into the fan favorite “Blister in the Sun,” before a few other classics that really got the crowd moving. “Kiss Off” and “Gone Daddy Gone” were also fantastic. Later on, 90s queen of angst, Alanis Morissette, left nothing to chance and played a set filled with every song a fan could want to hear. Her voice was perfect, having not aged or changed a bit in her twenty-plus year career, and adding in her ability to wail on a harmonica only added levels of talent. Hearing a crowd of thousands sing back “Ironic” was not something I’ll soon forget and when she changed a lyric to mention her dream woman instead of man, she was met with an eruptive applause. “You Outta Know” was an anthem of fury and angst that sounded just as potent now as it did in the late 90s and it was a really a dream come true to hear these songs played so well so many years later. If there was a surprise for most unexpected highlight of the weekend, there could not be a more obvious choice. The crowds began to swell again as the sun began to set and Robert Plant took to the stage to give in on the Led Zeppelin fix that was raging over the course of the festival all weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many band t-shirts at a festival for a band on the line-up than I did with people wearing Zeppelin t-shirts on Sunday. Another rock elder statesman who still caters to his fans and with a voice as remarkable as his, it’s hard to imagine him giving up on these classics any time soon. “The Lemon Song” was a true joy, but hearing him sing “Going to California” in LA as the sun went down was a truly special moment and one of the best of the weekend. Of course, closing his set with “Whole Lotta Love” was nothing short of amazing and one Im glad my dad was with me to experience. For a festival indebted so much to the past, it still felt a bit odd to end with Third Eye Bling (I skipped Kings of Leon, oops), but they were in the same spirits as the other acts and played what the fans really wanted to hear. "Never Let You Go" and "Losing a Whole Year" were played with a passion as if it was still 1999 and these songs were ruling modern radio. “This is a sing-a-long song” shouted Stephen Perkins before slamming into the 90s alt-rock classic “Jumper,” but for me it “Motorcycle Drive By” that really hit home. Shocking to no one, the band ended the night with “Semi-Charmed Kinda Life” and the crowd went absolutely insane. A massive festival sing-a-long to the classics “do do do do do do do” felt altogether perfect, as if the song was actually written for moments just like this one. For a festival so primed on reviving the past, the bands seemed to know the vibes and really delivered the hits and lived up to expectations. It was a wonderful weekend that recaptured memories and helped reinvigorate bands and songs that had briefly escaped my memory, but will now hold a new place of extreme excitement and remembered glory.