Cal Jam 17 At Glen Helen Regional Park and Amphitheater, Saturday, October 7th 2017
The Foo Fighters are a powerful force here in So-Cal, they can come up with their own festival, invite friends to perform with them. they can even set up their own museum with a water park, carnival rides, a Gibson’s recording studio, a giant skate ramp, and sell all the merchandise they want. Cal Jam 17 was the Foo’s fest and they did whatever they wanted.
The inspiration behind Cal Jam 17 was the old Cal Jam festivals (aka California Jam), which were headlined by rock legends such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Aerosmith back in the 70s, and it looks like Dave Grohl has a big nostalgia for these giant rock music festivals. ‘They asked us if we wanted a release party at the Hollywood Bowl’, he told us last night, ‘I don’t think so!’ he added probably meaning he wanted something much bigger than a simple Bowl concert. Grohl always sees big and bold at the risk to look ridiculous. Who thought that a Foo Fighters museum inside the festival would be a good idea? But I am probably the only one to think that way, as the line to get in never seemed to end. I didn’t waste any time to wait on line, but you could apparently see Grohl’s stage throne he used when he toured with a broken leg, and I heard people coming out saying they had witnessed a piece of rock history.
Cal Jam 17 was big and had a vintage look, the old-fashioned carnival rides, the décor of the San Bernardino mountains in the background was adding to the scenery and the orange and black logo looked like an old-timey shirt design for California. I can’t tell if the festival was as successful as its 70s predecessors but it sure looked crowded at night when the Foo Fighters finally took the stage. The place has a 65,000 capacity amphitheater and two other stages had been set up far enough to not hear a sound coming from the main stage.
All day long, a lot happened on these 2 side-by-side Sun and Mountain stages, and If I obviously could not catch all the acts, it was a good distraction from the main stage which got very crowded very early on. So if you were already camping in front of the Cal Jam stage at 1 pm to be front row for the big acts, you may have been right, but you have also missed Aida Victoria and her smoky voice playing a few bluesy slow burns while facing the hot sun. Her soulful and cathartic melodies had poignancy with atmospheric guitars, fuzzy injections and a retro gothic vibe. Fireball Ministry were on the heavy metal side with Black Sabbath-esque highs, massive head banging and not-so-metal vocals despite their badass attitude. They were a sort of Mastodon light with a metal-hard rock frame and pop harmonies. I caught the last song of The Obsessed and their heavy, doom, satanic slowcore, and immediately switched to the other stage to see White Reaper and their punkish garage punk rock and youthful energy. They had punch, plenty of bouncy power chords and one of them was wearing a black and red Dracula cape, in a very Black Lips style. I had heard plenty of good things about Wolf Alice and she certainly delivered, screaming like a metal head over her dark distorted pop, bringing heaviness or punk inflection in her loud songs, I guess she is an act to follow.
Meanwhile, before the big acts, the main stage had The Struts, an English band who was trying to revive glam rock with heavy crowd participation and plenty of clapping, sing-alongs and triumphant choruses. On the edge of the stage, frontman Luke Spiller was doing a runaway while chasing the crowd’s energy. They were trying to be Queens, Cage the Elephant and Panic at the Disco! all at once, without being exactly any of these bands
Canadian Japandroids was another guitar-drum duo with plenty of energy and they gave an abrasive and muscular performance, but I guess I could have said exactly the same thing of Royal Blood on the main stage! If Japandroids had power chords and were brutally throwing words with a punk emo delivery, Royal Blood gave us an explosive rocking set with big riffs unleashed in full force. It is easy to understand why they are a band which would please a QOTSA crowd, they had the same kind of rough rock sound where distortion meets catchiness, bringing the right balance between pop and hard rock.
The festival was heavy on English bands, with Wolf Alice, Royal Blood, The Struts, and of course Liam Gallagher, who presented himself like the savior of rock ’n’ roll, ‘Tonight I’m a rock ’n’ roll star’ he sang as his set was heavy on Oasis classics, he even did ‘Wonderwall’. He was looking like himself, holding his arms in the back, singing with his nasal voice and his usual detached, borderline fuck-you-all attitude. He stayed very polite, but Liam is not the warmest frontman you can see, and despite this rock star attitude, he got poppier and poppier as the set progressed and some songs were a clear demonstration he has not renounced at trying to be John Lennon. ‘Not too many left’ he said after ‘Rock ’n’ roll Star’ without elaborating much.
However, it was Cage the Elephant who brought the real deal, starting their set with Tom Petty’s ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’, and one of the most dance-y, energetic set of the festival. Matt Shultz is the frontman, a restless character with very entertaining antics, doing acrobatics while changing his outfits several times, from elegant suit to sexy tight shorts. They even had real flames and from a furious chaos to acoustic-guitar-campfire-vocals à la Portugal. The Man, they gave one of the best performances of the festival, leaving everyone breathless for the next act.
I don’t know how many people chose to try to catch Bob Mould and The Kills on the other stages, and how many chose to stay in the pit to save their spot, but this seems to be the eternal dilemma of big festivals. The only thing I can say is that this pit was rough, super crowded and unmerciful! People started pushing and the place got very rowdy. I survived for the love of Queens of the Stone Age, but honestly, how can you truly enjoy music in these conditions? The set was intense at so many levels, The Queens were just damn so beautiful, I could feel their rock power even though the crowd was pushing hard, people were crowd surfing above my head and my body was hurting from all that standing all-day long. But if you needed one more proof that Homme is the incarnation of rock ‘n’ roll, you had it last night. Standing tall and defiant, he took this ‘Vegas strong’ sign from someone in the crowd,…This probably was the most meaningful moment of the festival, it was a superhero Kodak moment, and I was mentally drawing a Superman cape behind his back. They played the hits with their usual badass assurance and the new songs (‘Domesticated Animals’, ‘Feet Don’t’ Fail Me’, ‘The Evil Has Landed’, ‘The Way You used to Do’) did beautifully blend with the standards. However, the many lightning bars put on stage sure made impossible to film their performance without getting blind. Joshua Homme didn’t spent too much time on lamenting on the recent Las Vegas massacre, he is not the kind to ask for useless ‘prayers and thoughts’, instead he talked about the strength of people standing together, he invited us to dance and do whatever we wanted, as a typical attitude of insubordination in front of terror. Homme also kept talking about the beauty of the night, and he sure knew how to make the night truly memorable despite the rowdiness of the people around me. On the giant screen, the Queens were shining, happy and even though I was not seeing vey well, you could visualize this lip curl at each hard riff, however, I really need to see them at an intimate venue again to cross out the festival frustration, if this is still possible.
After the Queens, the Foo Fighters were the kings of the night, and I don’t think I have ever seen so many FF shirts gathered at the same place in my life! The pit got even denser and about half-show I gave up and found a seat upstairs in the amphitheater… All these sing-alongs, all these formulaic songs, always going from quiet to rage and scream in less than 3 minutes, made me yawn,…I don’t care how many Foo Fighters fans were around, and there were tens of thousands, I got bored, despite Grohl’s bonhomie, long shinny hair and this fake southern accent he took to introduce the show, I left the pit and even left the Glen Helen Amphitheater before the end of the show, and I never do this. But it was such a long day anyway… As for the Foo Fighters music? There were the occasional more rock-out fast and furious parts, but it wasn’t enough to make me stay longer. I hung out long enough to have a taste of their new material, featuring their new single ‘The Sky Is a Neighborhood’ and ‘La Dee Da’ that they performed with Alison Mosshart of the Kills and saxophone player Dave Koz. Beside this, there were the hits ‘All My Life’, ‘Learn to Fly’, ‘My Hero’, ‘Monkey Wrench’… while other guests like Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry showed up for a cover of ‘Draw the Line’ and ‘Come Together,’ which of course made Liam Gallagher run on stage and even crowd surf a bit. But I was already gone, it was a bit too much to bear, Cal Jam 17 was probably the biggest rock concert of the year, but also the whitest fest ever, despite the numerous Latinos attending. At a time when festivals try to diversify their performers as much as they can, blending indie rock with electronic, punk and hip hop, (just go take a look at the FYF fest line up), Cal Jam 17 was a rock fest barely venturing outside of pop rock and metal, it was a rock fest handpicked by rockers who still think this is the only music that matters.