By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
In just its second year, the KAABOO Del Mar Music Festival at Del Mar Racetrack (just north of San Diego) has become a premier destination fest for those looking for a weekend filled with multimedia entertainment. The 2016 edition, held from September 16-18, drew strikingly larger crowds than last year’s inaugural launch.
Attendees were drawn by a diverse array of options including live music, stand-up comedy, celebrity chef demos, art displays and first-rate culinary selections. While the music was the primary focus, as fans flocked to daily headliners including Jimmy Buffett, Aerosmith and Jack Johnson (as well as many other top touring acts), the other cultural activities made the festival a uniquely luxurious experience.
Passes to attend the festival ranged from about $300 to $2500 to attend all three days. The regular general-admission pass provided access to all of the stages and festival grounds. VIP passes added exclusive seating areas, close-to-the-stage standing areas and a laundry list of additional perks. Additional fees were charged for indulgences like spa treatments and even a private sandy beach area with a pool overlooking one of the stages.
The Del Mar Racetrack property is a vast space, where KAABOO set up seven stages, spread out throughout the massive mostly outdoor venue, along with various food, beverage, gear and art vendors. The title sponsor, Mercedes-Benz, had new cars on display around the grounds, while many tents scattered across the landscape featured luxury product sponsors, who offered information, samples and contests.
When guests needed a break from the stage performances, there were multiple places to find premium wine, multi-national and craft beer, first-class spirits and gourmet food. The food prices were in line with the quality of the cuisine, but beverages were disproportionately expensive. However, the festival provided strategically placed “hydration stations” for filling reusable water containers. Also, unlike at most festivals, KAABOO has no “port-a-potties.” There were many clean, permanent bathrooms inside air-conditioned buildings and multiple Honey Wagons, those luxury portable bathroom trailers often found on movie sets.
On Friday, the first day of the festival, fest-goers got a feel for the layout of the venue, browsed the various vendors and heard some excellent music. During the afternoon sets, highlights included L.A.’s garage rock power trio, The Record Company, American folk duo Shovels & Rope, New Orleans’ Dumpstaphunk, 1990s hit makers Sugar Ray and amazing gospel-soul crooner Paul Janeway with his band St. Paul & the Broken Bones.
Several star chefs demonstrated some of their skills on the Palate Stage. Michael Fiorelli (of Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach), Ray Garcia (from Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria in Los Angeles), Steve Samson (Sotto and Rossoblu, Los Angeles) and Richard Blais (Juniper & Ivy, San Diego) all drew fans. Over at the comedy stage known as Humor Me, Jeff Ross, the “Roastmaster General” put on a hilarious, raunchy show. Dana Carvey drew a big crowd to his late-night set, too.
As day turned to evening, the crowd at the big Sunset Cliffs Stage grew denser for a set of classic hits from Hall & Oates. The last music sets of the day split the crowd between Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band, who drew a large contingent of “Parrotheads” to Sunset Cliffs, while Fall Out Boy attracted thousands of Millennials and Gen-Xers to the Grandview Stage, which was on the infield of the horse track. KAABOO really appealed to all tastes and for those with amazing stamina, late-night DJ sets kept things going at the Encore Stage, where fans danced to tunes spun by stars like Snoop Dogg.
Southern California provided perfect weather for the second day of KAABOO. With the sun shining and light breeze blowing throughout the gorgeous Saturday show, fabulous live music could be heard in every direction. San Diego’s own Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe kicked off an early set of funky, foot-tapping songs at Sunset Cliffs. Fans of ‘90s rock superstars had a great day as Third Eye Blind, Gin Blossoms, Collective Soul and Goo Goo Dolls put on memorable sets loaded with radio hits.
The biggest crowd of the entire weekend flocked to the Sunset Cliffs Stage to see the last two shows of the day. Lenny Kravitz put on an energetic show with his excellent band that included a fine horn section and three gyrating backup singers. Then legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Aerosmith closed the stage with an hour and a half of their greatest hits. You would never know that Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and the rest of the band are collecting Social Security, because they performed like 20-somethings with endless energy for the entire show. The massive crowd cheered and sang along to every hit song.
Sunday was the last day of the KAABOO Del Mar Festival and it had a much needed, much more mellow vibe. The crowd was a bit smaller, everyone that had attended the previous two days was running on fumes and many of the performers were known for playing in less-manic genres. The mellow theme, combined with some bands that knew each other well, would eventually prove to be a memorable conclusion to the festival.
ALO opened things at the Sunset Stage with a set of improvisational jam band songs. G Love & Special Sauce played some blues-influenced rock at the Grandview Stage. Jason Isbell did a fine set of soul-influenced rock and country songs. John Popper, who recently had spinal surgery, was miraculously mobile and led Blues Traveler through a jam-packed set at the small Trestles Stage.
The Avett Brothers wowed the growing Sunset Cliffs crowd with a set of traditional string-centric folk-rock tunes that had people dancing and twirling to the infectious beats. Back at Trestles, the youngsters came out in force to support indie-rock stars Cold War Kids, who did not disappoint. Once that show and a few other stage shows ended, the Sunday die-hards all flocked to Sunset Cliffs for the festival ending set by Jack Johnson.
Johnson is a Hawaiian-born, former professional surfer who graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the poster boy for modern soft rock and was a perfect closing headliner for the last, mellowest day of KAABOO. As a record producer, label owner and filmmaker, Johnson has worked with several of the other acts at KAABOO, so it was not much of a surprise when he started bringing guests onstage to sit in during his closing set.
Zack Gill from ALO, who record on Johnson’s label, played organ and sang backup for the entire set. G Love’s drummer Jeffrey “The Houseman” Clemens sat in, too. Donovan Frankenreiter, singer, guitarist, surfer and chef, who did a cooking demo earlier in the day, joined for a couple of songs. Rob Machado, pro surfer (notice a theme here?) played guitar for a tune. G Love, who featured the then-unknown Johnson on his “Philadelphonic” album in 1999, came out and sang a duet. The show ended with Johnson bringing out all of the Avett Brothers’ string players for a couple of upbeat tunes.
The audience who filed out of the Del Mar Racetrack grounds late Sunday evening for the end of KAABOO 2016 had seriously had their fill of festing. It was an exhausting, exhilarating three days of diverse entertainment, loaded with deluxe creature comforts. We expect next year’s festival to grow even larger and recommend planning early if you want to make the scene, because passes will likely sell out. The Third Annual KAABOO Del Mar Festival is scheduled for September 15-17, 2017 and early bird passes are now available.