By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
On June 23 and 24, 2018, the Arroyo Seco Weekend festival rolled into the grounds of the Brookside golf course outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, much to the delight of SoCal music lovers. This, the second year of the now-annual festival, improved significantly upon the inaugural event that sold out last June. World-class music, food offered by top area chefs and booths offering premium beer, wine and soft drinks combined with a comfortable, scenic setting, made this year’s event an impressive success.
The 2018 lineup was focused on rock acts, with female artists prominently featured. There was a noticeable and intentional absence of any hip hop or EDM music. Goldenvoice, the festival organizers that put on the much larger Coachella and Stagecoach events as well as last year’s Desert Trip, have put together this fest as a family friendly, chill weekend in Pasadena. While there were plenty of millennials bouncing around the festival grounds and baby boomers camped out in the allowable seating areas, there were also many toddlers with their families.
With about 25,000 people spread throughout the vast space that includes three stages along with food and beverage areas, there were no bottlenecks or crowding issues. The organizers addressed concerns from last year by clearly marking walk paths as well as delineating the standing-room-only sections near the two biggest stages. This improvement kept the chairs and blankets on the outskirts of the stage areas and drastically improved traffic flow.
Other things we loved:
Watching kids under 10 get in for free and finding activities just for them. Playing at the DIY art studio or the Kidspace Children’s Museum and learning at the Visions of the Future exhibition dome created by NASA’s nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory were just some of the things that kept them happily occupied.
Having great views from fantastic high-definition video screens on both sides of the two biggest stages. Especially at The Oaks stage, which drew the largest crowds, the video screens helped attendees clearly see what was happening on stage.
Hearing excellent sound quality and volume levels at all three stages, creating a terrific aural experience. If you were far away from the main Oaks stage, you could still hear the music clearly. If you were in the Willow tent, you were not blown away by excessive volume.
Discovering the great selection of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers and Grammy-winning classic rockers performing, including Neil Young, who has been edgy for over 50 years. At The Oaks stage on Saturday night, Young’s set with Promise of the Real was a successful meshing of a youthful group of talented musicians with a classic rocker: that combo brought new life to many celebrated songs. On favorites like “Cortez the Killer,” “Rocking in the Free World,” “Hey Hey, My My” and “Ohio,” Young wailed and played distorted, scorching solos while the band went along for the ride with “Uncle Neil” until wrapping up the set at about 11:45 p.m. And Robert Plant, who has been a rock legend since the 60s, too, blasting onstage on Sunday evening. Although he has strayed from his Led Zeppelin roots with his current band, the Sensational Space Shifters, he has found a way to rearrange the old classics while still bringing joy to those that remember them so well. His hour-plus set was loaded with standards like “Lemon Song,” “Going to California,” “Gallows Pole,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and a stirring “Whole Lotta Love” encore.
Being surprised by the fact that Kings of Leon got the cherished closing-night gig at Arroyo Seco Weekend, considering the resume of some of the other artists on the weekend’s lineup. In fact, lead singer Caleb Followill commented on just that fact early in their Sunday night show. However, the family band (brothers Nathan and Jared play drums and bass while cousin Matthew is on lead guitar), put on a smashing set of alternative rock with southern and blues influences. Their set and its festival-closing Number One hit “Sex on Fire” was a huge sing-along for the diehards that stayed until the end.
Listening to The Pretenders still sounding amazing, as Chrissie Hynde ruled (as always). And despite the many lineup changes over the years, her current supporting band made The Pretenders sound just like they did forty years ago in 1978.
Bopping along with Los Lobos as they once again did what they do best, with David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas impressing us yet again with their blazing guitar work. The band from East L.A. kept the crowd hopping with their blend of rock and roll, Tex-Mex, country, folk, R&B and blues. We never miss a chance to hear them play.
Enjoying the clever programming of Sunday’s all-stages flashback to modern rock from the 80s and 90s. Whatever the era, we love seeing these radio hitmakers live, including Prince’s backing band, The Revolution, belted out some of the legend’s hard-hitting, funky tunes like “Raspberry Beret” and “1999” early in the afternoon at the Sycamore stage. The Bangles followed and thrilled us with spot-on versions of “Hazy Shade of Winter,” “Manic Monday” and several other songs from their heyday. The Violent Femmes led sing-alongs at The Oaks stage on “Let Me Go Wild” and “Blister in the Sun.” Alanis Morissette followed them, still sounding great and still ironic. Later Sunday night, Third Eye Blind put on an up-tempo flashback to their 90s peak with fan friendly versions of “Understand” and “Semi-Charmed Life.”
Knowing that rock is alive and well, as cutting-edge contemporary bands proved that all weekend. Acts like Jack White, Gary Clark Jr., and the North Mississippi Allstars, who all play blues-influenced rock, are still totally relevant in today’s music scene and played scorching sets to prove it.
Finding less heralded, but ultra-talented artists in the ASW mix, like Fantastic Negrito, who put on a politically charged, kinetically animated soul-rock performance in the Willow tent on Sunday. The golden-voiced Dorothy followed; she’d be as comfortable in the hippie-era 1960s as she is today.
Realizing that old and new jazz masters have a place at a mostly rock festival, with Pharoah Sanders leading the pack under the tent at the Willow stage early Saturday afternoon. Sadly, many missed out on seeing Sanders, the free-jazz tenor saxophone great who emerged from John Coltrane’s groups of the mid-1960s. A much larger crowd came to The Oaks stage later that day for the latest savior of jazz, Kamasi Washington, a Los Angeles native who has taken the festival scene by storm. His music may be jazz, may be fusion and may be rock, but whatever it is, the brilliant tenor saxophone player has risen to the top of the scene where he belongs.
Imbibing abundant selections of specialty cocktails, craft beer and premium wines, found all over the festival grounds. The Glenfiddich experimental air-conditioned dome was a unique oasis. You could sniff the vapor of three different experimental whiskies and learn about their fantastic single-malt scotch. Refreshing cocktails like the Scottish Lemonade or the Hip Hop, made with the first ever IPA scotch (their Glenfiddich IPA Cask Reserve), were available for purchase, while elsewhere on the festival grounds people enjoyed Flor de Cana rum drinks and Hendricks Gin specialty cocktails. Other specialty drinks made with premium spirits were flowing at strategically placed booths. Beer lovers had great choices from Craftsman Brewing, Eagle Rock Brewery, Three Weavers and Saint Archer. Wine aficionados could choose premium selections from DomaineLA wine shop as well as a variety of organic and biodynamic wines.
Gobbling up seriously good eats, with over forty area restaurants offering a diverse selection of food. Everything from Jon & Vinny’s pizza (that sold out both days) and Barrel & Ashes’ pulled pork sammies to Ridges Churro Bar and Dream Donuts. Vegan and vegetarian options were also plentiful, making Arroyo Seco a winner for foodies.
Filling up at free water-filling stations, which every festival needs.
Being close to home, as the Pasadena location means that L.A.-area music lovers don’t have to drive three plus hours or camp out for a music festival. Arroyo Seco Weekend gives L.A. a real, world-class music festival, all within an hour of everyone in the Los Angeles area, who could drive home each night, tuck in the kids and sleep in their own beds.
Finding out that free parking is included in the ticket price! Name another festival or sporting event that does that.
Things that still need some work:
Pricing was slightly over the top – maybe offering some lower-priced food and drink options is a nice idea. Should a Coors Light beer really be $10? Or a glass of wine go for $26? And $12 for a “craft” hot dog is pretty laughable.
Perhaps Jeff Goldblum could drop the trivia question shtick and honor the excellent musicians in the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra by playing more music during his set?
But overall, this was such a well-run, expertly booked festival that it is hard to find much fault. After experiencing two years of Arroyo Seco Weekend, we are anxiously looking forward to seeing what Goldenvoice brings to this fabulous fest in 2019. Will they keep the chill vibe? Or will they expand dramatically and make it more like the 100,000 capacity Coachella and Stagecoach events? The venue can handle a lot more people and more stages, but we really hope they stick with what is working. The size, location and vibe seem just about right for L.A.’s very own annual music festival.