By Andy J. Gordon and Jenny Peters
Now in its fourth year, the KAABOO Del Mar festival has realized its goal of being an all-inclusive entertainment experience, with a diverse mix of world-class music, high-quality culinary offerings, top-shelf craft libations, visually inspiring art exhibitions, famous comedy acts, and even a selection of indulgent amenities like spa services and an actual swimming pool. The three-day event took place from September 14-16, 2018, at the historic Del Mar Racetrack + Fairgrounds, just north of San Diego on the Southern California coast.
Fans in attendance enjoyed three glorious days, as sunny, warm afternoons transitioned to comfortable nights. There were so many things to do that making hard choices was the worst problem of the weekend. Festival organizers have done a great job of arranging the location of the stages so that traffic flows smoothly. Festgoers moved easily from stage to stage, while visiting prestigious food and beverage vendors, looking at creative art displays and shopping for festival gear along the way.
While the nature of any music festival places an emphasis on extensive walking, attendees could choose to stay at one stage or move around according to their personal schedules – with so much great entertainment, there were no bad choices. We could not possibly experience everything offered, but still gave it the old college try and sampled as much as was humanly possible.
Fine bands representing every decade from the 60s to the 2010s highlighted the first day of KAABOO, and plenty of people played hooky from school or work to take in the spectacle. The Zombies rocked out the early afternoon, followed by Tower of Power, playing at the relatively intimate Trestles stage. Both bands went deep into their catalogs, bringing their old-school rock and soul classics as well as brand-new tunes into the mix, to happy crowds who spanned the ages from Baby Boomers to teenagers. Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Blondie, with Debbie Harry at the forefront, belted out classics like “One Way or Another,” “Call Me” and “Rapture.” Harry belied her 73 years with a youthful neon-pink-and-yellow outfit and her signature white hair, putting together a bold fashion statement to go with her band’s punk rockin’ set.
Fans of 90s alt rock got their fill with fine sets by Everclear, Jimmy Eat World and Incubus. Super-hot rapper Post Malone closed the day on the large Grandview stage, while the Foo Fighters, those multiple Grammy winners who have been delighting audiences for 24 years, closed things out on the immense Sunset Cliffs headliner’s stage.
Dave Grohl led the Fighters through a manic set of tunes that spanned their recording history. Fans sang along to “Learning to Fly,” “These Days,” “My Hero” and many of their other beloved hits. Grohl revealed to the adoring crowd that the last time he played at the Del Mar Racetrack was 27 years earlier as part of Nirvana, who opened with Pearl Jam for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After all these years, he and his band still bring that special something that makes their live performances so memorable.
Over at Palate, KAABOO’s culinary stage, famous chefs like “Top Chef” favorite Richard Blais did cooking demos all day, while over at the Humor Me comedy stage Nikki Glaser and Craig Ferguson got the crowds howling with hilarious sets.
More alt rockers were out in force early on Saturday afternoon, as Soul Asylum and Better Than Ezra put on impressive sets. The Wailers, Bob Marley’s old band, brought their traditional reggae rhythms to an all-ages crowd at the Trestles stage that could not stop dancing. The DeLeo brothers and Jeff Gutt led San Diego’s own Stone Temple Pilots through a hard-rocking evening set at the Sunset Cliffs stage, followed by Pharrell Williams band N.E.R.D. who did a set of hip hop and rock tunes that made their mostly teenage fans jump for joy.
1980s punk icon Billy Idol was still snarling (as always) while he performed his best-selling hits on the Grandview stage, from “White Wedding” to “Eyes Without a Face.” Then the legendary band Earth, Wind & Fire took over, producing beautiful horn arrangements and harmonies to close out the schedule on that stage in front of a large, happy crowd. Meanwhile, Melissa Etheridge showed off her virtuoso guitar chops and raspy, powerful voice for an adoring crowd over at Trestles.
Saturday’s big headliners, Imagine Dragons, made the Sunset Cliffs stage the place to be as the stars came out, closing out the day’s sweaty festivities in front of a huge crowd. The band played hits like “Radioactive” and “Demons” while lead singer Dan Reynolds bounded off the stage multiple times to interact with the rabid – and delighted – fans in the first few rows.
Along the way on Saturday, more celebrity chefs like Mark Forgione of “Iron Chef” fame gave cooking demonstrations at the Palate stage. And Louie Anderson, Whitney Cummings and Craig Robinson led an all-star lineup that went late into the night at the Humor Me stage.
Sunday’s crowds wandered in a bit more slowly as the afternoon progressed, as three days of constant movement from stage to stage to art installations, beer gardens and boutique wine booths had slowed everyone down just a bit. But that didn’t stop Pauley Shore, Kevin Nealon and Judd Apatow & Friends from keeping audiences rolling in the aisles during sets at the Humor Me stage. And “Top Chef” finalist Brian Malarkey prepped tasty dishes and handed out samples at the Palate stage, followed by Ludo Lefebvre of “Top Chef Masters” and “The Taste,” who made his fans drool and cheer simultaneously.
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Elvin Bishop wowed the nostalgic crowd at Trestles with several old blues classics and his signature hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” to start the day off right. Famed electric guitarist Slash led a great band featuring Myles Kennedy & the Conspirators; together they knocked out a set of hard-rocking tunes. Alice in Chains completed the KAABOO trifecta weekend packed with beloved alt/grunge rockers by bringing a hard-hitting set. And War, a band with 50 years of history under their collective belts, played old-school funk, rock and R&B including hits “Spill the Wine” and “Low Rider” as a huge, appreciative audience boisterously sang along.
Finally, as darkness fell on Sunday’s warm and convivial day filled with music lovers, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Robert Plant brought his current band, The Sensational Space Shifters, to the Grandview stage to help him close the festival with a powerful performance. The crowd went ballistic every time they played one of Plant’s Led Zeppelin tunes, but their newer material was also fantastic and showed off the incredible chops of this fine band.
Plant certainly knows how to work a crowd. He prowled across the stage, swinging his microphone stand and screaming out the familiar lyrics to some Zeppelin classics, sounding as strong-voiced as ever, despite having celebrated his 70th birthday in August. The band played amazing versions of “Good Times, Bad Times,” “Going to California,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” Lead Belly’s “Gallows Pole” and an encore medley of “Bring It on Home” and “Whole Lotta Love.” It was a great way to say goodbye to KAABOO Del Mar 2018.
Improving every year, this festival completely sold out for the first time in 2018 – and every ticket buyer truly got a full weekend of excellent and varied entertainment. Next year’s festival is already scheduled for September 13-15, 2019, in the same well-designed venue at Del Mar, and tickets are already on sale. So if a festival with an amazing, diverse lineup of live music, culinary treats, great stand-up comedy and luxurious amenities are your idea of a great way to spend three days, then put KAABOO Del Mar on the top of your wish list for 2019.
A gallery with more photos below: