Arroyo Seco Weekend, Saturday June 23rd 2018
Arroyo Seco Weekend was intense, dense, exhausting of course, but very rewarding. This weekend was the second edition of the festival, which, based on its success, is probably here to stay for a long time. We are spoiled with music in Los Angeles, music festivals of all sizes abound all-year long, but we are treated with this relatively new Arroyo Seco Weekend concept and a lineup to tease several generations.
There were an estimated 25,000 people on Saturday to see Jack White and Neil Young among many other performers, but the festival was so spacious, that it never felt too crowded when walking from one stage to the next. The bucolic landscape (the grounds surrounding the Rose Bowl in Pasadena) and the family affair that Arroyo Seco wants to be, give a charming and nostalgic touch to the music fest, since this is a place for people to bring blankets and chairs, savor gourmet food prepared by upscale LA eateries or drink cocktails under a tree, while watching the Pretenders! Of course, I am not one of these people, I tried to get close to the stage each time, and this forced me to ignore the culinary aspect of the festival to only concentrate on the music. I barely saw that there was an interactive NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a botanical installation by the Huntington Gardens and a record store, but after all there are only 10 hours from noon to midnight, and there was so much to see on 3 stages.
It’s always a dilemma when there’s so much to choose from, and choices are hard to make. If the festival presented a diverse lineup the trend was toward classic rock, country, blues and jazz, a great mix which had a real appeal for the attendance. Where else could you have seen jazz legend Pharoah Sanders and his smooth sax lines, moving very slowly but playing with a youthful spark at the corner of his eyes? Or Seu Jorge, brilliantly reinterpreting his famous Brazilian tunes with a mix of dub, funk, reggae and rap mouth-percussion? Or Jeff Goldblum and his classic ensemble, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, playing piano jazz with Jurassic Park trivia interludes?
From what I was able to see, the indie side was represented by Typhoon, a large ensemble from Portland which played an emotional stormy set with violin, percussion and many instruments, channeling Arcade Fire or Frightened Rabbit, Shakey Graves, an interesting new songwriter, played a catchy and heartfelt Americana, with an undeniable charm, looking like a more uplifting Ryan Adams. North Mississippi Allstars, who have opened for Robert Plant in the past, were at the right place with their tough raw blues with a flute, blended into a pure southern rock sauce.
Kamasi Washington looked like a superhero or a grand priest with his blue cape and gold saxophone, while his modern jazz composition sounded adventurous and intense. There was something majestic about his epic set and slowly sprawling pieces with trumpets, his dad on clarinet and eerie female vocals, not unlike those of an Ennio Morricone composition. And of course, he played ‘Truth’, an emotional 14-minute piece building an intense moment reaching chaos, while celebrating togetherness. He told us that diversity should not be tolerated but celebrated, sounding like a well grounded spiritualist with jazz compositions that could make you cry or wave along to.
Then came the queen of the night, Chrissie Hynde and her Pretenders, who played many of their memorable hits such as, ‘I’ll Stand By You’, ‘My City Was Gone’, ‘Middle of the Road’,… Now I have read the worst things about her bad temper, but she was radiant and apparently having a fun time. Wearing a classy pink jacket and a black tee reading ‘Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working’, she introduced ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ with a ‘This one is for your mother’, being well aware of the nostalgia part… ‘You still got it’ I heard coming from the crowd. On stage, she looked as tough and sexy as I had imagined from the videos I was watching on TV (difficult to believe it) 30 years ago. She had surrounded herself by young musicians occupying the stage with killer guitar solos, and memories were running high when they did the old Pretenders’ hits. If they injected a few more recent songs in the set, ‘Alone’, ‘Let’s Get Lost’, ‘Gotta Wait’, they knew festival people wanted stuff like ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ and they got it, plenty of it. ‘You should dance every day’, Chrissie told us, ‘Actually I am not telling you what you should do, because if someone tells me what to do, I won’t do it!’ she added with the same independent attitude I have always liked in her. She teased us with ‘I am looking for a bad boy’ before ‘Bad Boy Get Spanked’, and yes, she was at the level of her reputation, at least that’s what I have always expected from the Pretenders.
You don’t go to a music festival to get edgy performances from artists such as Jack White, it’s a classy family festival and he knew people would not be overly interested to hear cuts from his new ‘Boarding House Reach’. Although he opened with ‘Over and Over and Over’, he did a lot of White Stripes material, such as ‘Hotel Yorba’, ‘Cannon’, ‘Black Math’, ‘My Doorbell, ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’, ‘Offend in Every Way’, ‘The Hardest Button to Button’… and even ‘Seven Nation Army’… However, it’s difficult to tell with Jack White, the songs were melting into each other with his succession of aggressive guitar solos crashing in loudness, and it took me a while to recognize the songs beside the obvious ones. The stage was black and blue, he was wearing a blue suit, and all the rest, from his bandmates to instruments, was matching the bicolor mood, while Jack White was trashing and re-trashing the stage with violent statements and vocals at the edge of a furious breakdown. He had asked for no photographers in the pit, and when he decided to sing ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’, sitting at the edge of the stage, at the most vulnerable reach from the iPhones he always hates (although he didn’t say anything), he hid his face with his hand the whole time. The entire set, he looked and acted nervous and anxious, raging like a caged animal, reworking his enraged blues songs with a frenetic and restless determination. Of course, people loved him for this reason, of course he repeatedly swept the place with his solo guitars on steroids, but how long can you tolerate this animosity without a sign that he is not playing only for himself but for an adoring crowd? I often get this impression with Jack White, a feeling that his music is self-serving… After such demonstration of anger for an hour or so, his new song ‘Connected by Love’ suddenly sounded like a weird declaration.
However there were a few kings that night, I am talking about Neil Young and his Promise of the Real (featuring Willie Nelson’s kids, Lukas and Micah), who captured the large audience for about two hours with epic guitar battles and layered jams stretching the songs for long minutes. As the rest of the performers, they dusted off the classics, ‘Fuckin’ Up’, ‘Cortez the Killer’, ‘Hey Hey, My My’, or a CSN&Y cover, ‘Down by the River’… but Neil also let the next generation shine when Lukas sang ‘Forget About Georgia’ (a sort of answer to his dad), and when Micah played ‘Everything is Bullshit’.
Neil obviously knew how to communicate with the crowd below his giant SEEDS stage background and a LOVE neon sign at his feet, ‘We don’t want to lose contact’ he told us… ‘We don’t have a setlist, because it’s a list, that’s why’, and he did the beautiful Buffalo Springfield cover, ‘I Am a Child’ for ‘all these little kids in cages out there’… Someone had to address this issue. However the show didn’t not turn too political, unless you were paying attention to the music and the songs, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, ‘Angry World’, ‘Powderfinger’, ‘Ohio’, Down by the River’… it was not a show for ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Harvest Moon’ or ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’… Neil Young knew it, and let’s hope this didn’t escape anyone between a pastrami crunch wrap and a lobster roll.