Day 1
The second annual Arroyo Seco festival was held in a beautiful tree-lined meadow, just outside the Rose Bowl, in the affluent suburbs of Pasadena. The event seems to be modeled after the one-off mega concert, Desert Trip, which was held at the Coachella festival site in 2016. That concert, which featured six of the biggest acts in classic rock, was one of the most sophisticated festival events in history, featuring a massive stage, sound system, and media screens. The Arroyo Seco event features three stages, much more modest than the gargantuan one in the desert, but all with quality sound. There were so many booths offering up the goodies spread across the sprawling festival grounds, there always seemed to be a spot to grab food or drink without a line.

The event was reconfigured this year to make it more comfortable to move about and find a good spot to watch the action. Large walkways were cordoned off and patrolled by a large security force to allow easy access to the facilities as well as the music stages. An area in front of each stage was designated standing room, while tree-lined and the hilly regions in the back were reserved for concert goers to lounge on blankets and chairs. The result was a festival that felt much like a giant summer picnic with about 25,000 of your closest friends. In many ways, the event felt like a throwback to the music festivals of the ‘70s.

While much of the crowd was older than a typical festival crowd, the event really was a family affair with many couples pushing baby carriages, followed by grandparents reliving their former concert-attending days. The music was an eclectic mix of classic rock, modern rock, and jazz, representing multiple generations and genres. What most of the bands shared at the two-day music extravaganza was an amazingly high level of musicianship.

By the time the 77-year-old saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, a true legend of free-form jazz, took the smaller Willow stage, the tented venue was nearly full of passionate jazz lovers. The experimental sax master has been recording music since 1964 and began playing with the illustrious John Coltrane a year later. Meanwhile, the veteran Delta blues-rock band, North Mississippi Allstars, were bringing their own fiery brand of music to a large crowd in front of the Sycamore stage. The main Oaks stage came alive just a little bit later, with the inspiring music of Brazilian guitarist and singer Seu Jorge and his band of world music masters. The group even featured a backing beat boxer, which was the closest the festival came to actual hip-hop offerings.

Back in the Willow Tent, actor and musician Jeff Goldblum and The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra were running late due to technical issues. But that didn’t stop Goldblum from coming onstage and entertaining the crowd. He started with a mime routine. Then after finally getting handed a working microphone, he broke into a 10-minute stand up comedy routine which had the crowd screaming their approval. At one point, he asked everyone to sing their respective national anthems at the same time. Later, he asked everyone to sing their favorite Beatles song. His comedy routine continued into his set of respectable jazz, while leading a talented band. He played piano, sang and chatted up the crowd, much to their delight. The Sycamore stage featured a set by the Austin Americana music maven Shakey Graves. He began his set solo before being joined by his backing band. Saxophone player Kamasi Washington brought another great jazz band to the festival, including a special guest on Clarinet, his father, Rickey.

The Milk Carton Kids brought a much mellower vibe to late afternoon festival loungers. The young folk duo has released 4 albums since 2011, the first two for free. Vocally, they are reminiscent of 60’s and 70’s folk-rock bands like Crosby Stills and Nash. It was a perfect setting to sit and sip a beverage or eat a gourmet bite.

The Oaks stage was more hectic as Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders took the stage. Hynde and her trademark voice are intact, and although she wasn’t as animated and confrontational as in the old punk days, she turned in a brilliant performance. It was also good to see the original drummer, Martin Chambers, back in the band, the only other surviving member of the original lineup. The band played classics like ‘Thumbelina', and Hynde sported a shirt that said “Don’t Pet Me I’m Working,” in line with her firebrand image. The crowd responded enthusiastically, singing along to many of the songs.

Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian and their entourage brought a mellower sound as the brilliant summer sun began to set. It was a perfect vibe for a relaxing sit-down show, with music fans swarming the surrounding hills on chairs and blankets. Back at the main Oaks stage, the crowd swelled again for the sunset performance by guitar wizard Jack White. It was nice to see White in the warm embrace of the setting sun. His current ‘Blue’ tour usually takes place at night under an eerie unchanging blue lightscape that creates more mood than visual substance. White began with wailing guitar, playing songs from his new album ‘Boarding House Reach.’ The crowd came alive at the end of the set when White ended with the more familiar ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘Steady as She Goes’.

As evening fell, English Ska music pioneers the Specials played a dance-infused set, full of political diatribes. The jabs at Trump weren’t surprising coming from a band that helped break racial barriers back in England. Although the bands' members have aged considerably, their set sounded timeless and as the most fun to dance to the entire first day.

Neil Young, who has been rumored to be retiring soon, played the final set of the evening, with his latest touring band, The Promise of The Real. It was no surprise that the rock icon attracted the biggest crowd of the day. He began the set with a monumental guitar jam, opening with a 20-minute version of Like an Inca’ from the 1982 album ‘Trans.’ Young struggled with some technical issues but soldiered on. “It’s a banner night for playing songs in the wrong key,” he said, before giving up on one song mid-tune. “My God, I can see the reviews,” he lamented. He eventually got back on track and turned in a two-hour set full of classic songs. He even let band member Lukas Nelson take over lead duties and sing one of his tunes from The Promise of The Real catalog. The son of Willie Nelson, Lukas is a great singer and a guitar wizard in his own right. His brother Micah, who is also in the band, took a turn as lead singer before Young took back the reins. The set list included fan favorites like ‘Rockin' In The Free World’, ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ and ‘Powderfinger’. He also played a gem from Buffalo Springfield’s catalog, ‘I Am a Child’, dedicating it to the “Families that we really do care about.” A double encore featured the fiery protest song ‘Ohio’ and an extended guitar drenched version of ‘The River’ Many exhausted fans didn’t make it back to their cars until nearly midnight, with less than 12 hours left to the first sets of day 2.

Day 2

The music started early, and by the time the Revolution took the Sycamore stage, a large crowd had gathered. One of the most popular funk bands of the 80s, Prince’s backing band came to worldwide prominence after the 1984 Purple Rain album and motion picture. The five original members recently reunited to bring the early Prince classics to Prince’s fans. While no one can fill the void of the mercurial wizard of the funk, it was a nice dose of nostalgia to hear this phenomenal band play the classics. The Violent Femmes turned in their usual set of irreverent and raucous Indie rock. The band played some quirky new music, but the weird anthems that made the band famous are what the crowd was waiting for. The trio, joined by a saxophone player, obliged them, playing ‘Blister In The Sun’, ‘American Music’ and ‘Kiss Off’. Early on, the band played ‘I Hate The TV’, changing one of the chorus lines to “I hate the president,” resonating well with a liberal California audience.

The next round of sets featured a nostalgic set by the all-girl pioneer rockers, the Bangles. It was the first time that original bassist Annette Zalinskas played with all the other original members since 1983, so the show was a genuine reunion. The group came out of the gates with a fiery version of one of their biggest hits, the cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’. The band played with a renewed passion, inspiring the large crowd to dance and sing along to the well-received set. Droves of music fans migrated back from their set to the main Oaks stage, to hear the 90’s post-grunge girl rocker, Alanis Morissette. The Canadian singer placated the vast crowd with many of the songs from her hit 1995 album, ‘Jagged Little Pill’. The set was short but full of energy, with the charismatic singer, playing harmonica guitar and racing about the stage, taunting her band members.

Much like Jack White and Neil Young the day before, Chicano rock veterans, Los Lobos, opened their set with a scoring extended guitar jam. Their version of ‘La Bamba’ had the crowd dancing en masse. Across the meadow at the main stage, blues guitar wizard Guy Clarke Jr. lead his fantastic group of musicians into jazz-rock fusion territory.

As the sun lingered in the late afternoon summer sky, the Los Angeles synth-pop dancing duo, Capital Cities, brought their latest band to the Pasadena meadow. The group was not only one of the youngest acts to appear, but it was also the only act to draw from the world of EDM. Although most of the crowd around the Sycamore stage probably knew little about the group, (except for their hit single ‘Safe and Sound’) their rhythms were infectious. Rock legend Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters appeared onstage in the orange glow of the setting sun. The biggest crowd of the festival was packed around the front of the stage. It was not surprising that the 69-year-old opened with a crowd-pleasing Led Zeppelin tune. What was surprising was how many times that the band touched on Zeppelin material through the set, and how strong Plants vocals rang out. In recent years, Plant has been content at being more of a blues singer, avoiding to trademark wails that defined the Zeppelin sound. But at Arroyo Seco, Plant seemed to have recovered the mercurial singing skills of his youth, hitting haunting notes that he hasn’t sung in a very long while. Later in the set, someone threw a lemon on the stage, and the bemused pop star took a minute to juggle the memento and quipped to the crowd “After all these years, and this is my reward? A piece of citrus?” The band played songs from their new album, but it was the Zeppelin classics that had the crowd in a euphoric mood. I addition to ‘The Lemon Song’, Plant served up Zep classics ‘Goin’ to California’, ‘Gallows Pole’, and an eerie ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’.

A modest crowd found their way over to the Willow tent for two American music legends that predated the Led Zeppelin era. First the ‘Soul Queen of New Orleans’ Irma Thomas took the stage with a group of R&B masters. The 77-year-old Grammy-winning blues singer wowed the crowd with her vocal skills. Next, R&B hitmaker Aaron Neville played a mystical evening set, mesmerizing the audience with his angelic singing voice. Neville played chart-topping hits such as ‘Chain Gang’ and ‘Stand By Me’, a Bob Marley medley, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On The Wire’, and many more standards, such as “A Change Is Gonna Come’, ‘Tell It Like It Is’, ‘Down By The Riverside’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’.

The San Francisco post-grunge band Third Eye Blind closed out the Sycamore stage in the early evening with a riveting set. Original lead singer and guitarist Stephen Jenkins looked and sounded a bit like the long lost brother of the Gallagher brothers from Oasis. By the time Kings of Leon began their closing set, at least half the audience had already bailed. Although the Nashville rockers formed back in 1999, it wasn’t until 2008 and ‘Sex on Fire’ that the band became a mainstream sensation. Whether it was the diminishing crowd or the fire of earlier acts, the final set felt a bit anticlimactic. Lead singer Caleb Followill seemed distracted as the set began and didn’t really connect with the audience. The band also made concertgoers willing to stick it out to hear the hits, wait an excruciatingly long time. ‘Use Somebody’ didn’t come until halfway into the set and ‘Sex on Fire’ was only heard by the most ardent hangers on. But taken as a whole, the second day of Arroyo Seco 2018 was another day of incredibly inspiring music and a beautiful first Sunday of the summer.


Photos by L. Paul Mann
www.lpaulmann.com















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