By Andy J. Gordon and Jenny Peters
KAABOO, an innovative new festival, landed at Del Mar Racetrack (just north of San Diego) throughout the long weekend of September 18 to 20, 2015. The organizers, who called it “an adult escape” and a “curated three-day sound voyage,” presented over 100 music acts, a dedicated stand-up comedy stage, gourmet food, craft beers and a variety of creature comforts. They built it, and people came, thousands of fans who enjoyed a long weekend of live music, big-name comedians, celebrity chef demonstrations, a huge art installation and more.
The challenge for organizers of any big festival is to attract big-name acts, large audiences and turn a profit. For a first year event, the KAABOO Festival faced many obstacles, but did many things right. They booked major talent that crossed genres. They offered a variety of ticket options including general admission, VIP and ultra VIP, as well as weekend passes or single-day tickets. Prices were on the high end ($125 for single-day general admission to several thousand dollars for VIP access), but discounts were available locally as the start date approached.
The event signed up big corporate sponsors led by Mercedes-Benz, appealing to an affluent demographic. Mercedes sponsored the main stage and their cars were featured prominently around the grounds, some with a special KAABOO paint job. Other sponsors included some fine local restaurants, as well as big corporate drink and entertainment companies.
One of the nicest touches was the shaded areas designed to help festers escape from the blistering sun. Strategically placed water-bottle filling stations were available to all attendees. Maybe best of all was the absence of porta-potties. Clean, air-conditioned facilities were open inside the building structures and fancy “Honey Wagon” deluxe portable bathrooms were also placed in areas without easy access to buildings.
The food and beverage vendors were spread throughout the venue and it was easy to navigate between the stages. Attendees could follow posted signs, use a printed map or follow the app that was designed specifically for the event. Every stage had a great light show, clear sound and good sight lines.
On opening day (Friday September 18), the festival was all about rock’s leading ladies as Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani led the day of female power. Both Crow and Stefani paid tribute to Raitt, expressing thanks to her for opening rock-and-roll doors to the younger female rockers.
Also performing on Friday were Foster The People, who put on a catchy, electronic-heavy, pop performance at the big Mercedes-Benz Sunset Cliffs stage. Los Lobos played at the more intimate Trestles stage and brought their East L.A. version of blues-rock to an appreciative audience. The best part of their show was when they launched into a sizzling version of Elmore James’ “One Way Out,” known more famously as an Allman Brothers standard.
The long day ended with No Doubt on the big stage and Snoop Dogg performing at the same time on the Grandview stage, located at the opposite end of the massive venue, which stretched the length and breadth of the racetrack. That was by design to split the crowd (and avoid sound bleeding from stage to stage), but it made it difficult to catch both acts. Gwen Stefani and her band mates had a big crowd singing along with many of their classic hits (has it really been 20 years?), while Snoop and his posse also had an energetic audience bouncing to the addictive beats. That group might have been influenced by the giant cloud of presumably “medicinal” products wafting over the stage and audience.
Fans had lots of choices on Saturday (September 19) as the stages were filled by bands that played an eclectic mix of hip-hop, reggae, indie-pop, punk, rock and country rock. Rodrigo Y Gabriela delivered a set of double guitar wizardry on the big Sunset Cliffs stage. The Roots came up next there, as Jimmy Fallon’s house band got an enthusiastic crowd gyrating to beats that ranged from hip-hop to soul, funk and classic rock. Their medley cover of Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” were highlights.
Counting Crows kept up the energy at the big stage while hometown favorites Slightly Stoopid brought their mash up of reggae and rock to the Grandview stage. Zack Brown Band pleased the cowboy-boot-wearing country rockers to close out the evening at Sunset Cliffs. Young The Giant put on an inspired show at the Zuma stage for a packed house of mostly young fans that packed the racetrack’s grandstand bleachers.
Sunday, September 19, was the last day of KAABOO. The sun was blazing as fans slowly trickled into the venue. New Orleans’ legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band inspired a small crowd with their amazing horn arrangements, high energy and infectious beats. At the Zuma stage, OAR drew a bigger crowd for some catchy straight ahead rock and roll.
More New Orleans natives took to the big Sunset Cliffs stage as Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue showed why they have become international sensations. Shorty wowed the crowd with his vocals, amazing stage presence and virtuoso horn playing, both on trombone and trumpet.
KAABOO also continued to showcase the power of leading ladies on Sunday. Following Shorty’s set, Grace Potter, who recently released a solo album, commanded the big stage. She gave an impassioned performance that included hard rock, ballads and danceable pop tunes. While Potter entertained on the biggest stage, Michael Franti & Spearhead offered island rhythms to a devoted audience at the Grandview stage.
Back at Sunset Cliffs Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals played a great set of blues-inspired rock. Harper belted out some of his hits and showed off his expertise on lead guitar. Over at the intimate Trestles stage, the crowd experienced a special performance by JJ Grey & Mofro. The band was concluding a long domestic tour at KAABOO and went out with a bang as Grey belted out many of his soulful tunes.
The festival ended with the highly anticipated set by The Killers. All of the other stages had finished their performances so everyone in the venue flocked to the last show at Sunset Cliffs. The largest crowd of the weekend sang along to all of the band’s radio friendly hits. They opened with their breakout song “Mr. Brightside” and followed with “Human,” “Somebody Told Me,” “Read My Mind” and “One More Sun.”
The crowd loved it when the band threw in a cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and the show and festival finally ended with Brandon Flowers, the band’s vocalist and front man, leading the crowd on a sing-a-long for “When You Were Young.”
KAABOO ended on a high note. As the spent audience headed out to the exits, the giant video screens posted a “thank you for attending” and a reminder that next year’s event is scheduled for September 16-18, 2016. The Del Mar Racetrack complex has ample space and parking to accommodate even more stages and larger crowds next year, and since the organizers have committed to making KAABOO a major festival destination to rival Coachella, NOLA Jazz Fest and Bonnaroo, don’t be surprised if next year’s KAABOO is even bigger and better.
All Photos copyright Andy J. Gordon 2015©