Arroyo Seco Weekend: Pasadena’s Semi-Elitist New Festival Hits the Sweet Spot

While not cheap, the two-day festival Arroyo Seco Weekend is doable. Expense-wise, if you were to go both days, I would equate it as slightly less pricey than a weekend at Disneyland depending on your ability to limit souvenir spending. Single-Day Passes are $125, up to $399.00 for a VIP weekend. Kids 10 and under are free.

The first Arroyo Seco (pronounced ah-roy-oh seh-co) Weekend, put on by entertainment behemoth Goldenvoice, took place on Saturday and Sunday June 24 and 25th on grounds adjacent to the Rose Bowl. I was able to attend the first day, which gave me a sense of the demographic the festival was after and the space it’s seeking to fill on the festival circuit. Plus, I finally got to cross another one off of my “see them before they die” list with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers headlining the first night.

This festival seems to be squarely aiming for well-off Boomers and their hip, youngish Gen X and MillenniOld offspring. This is a demographic that expects quality, organization, and the ability to bring their adorably dressed offspring along for the ride.
The grounds aren’t that large and are dotted with trees, pocket parks and some shaded picnic areas and tents. Best of all, everything is clearly labeled and fits in with the upscale fair branding–think white picket fences, Craftsman with some rustic table logs thrown in for good measure. Whimsical white balloons labeled “eat” and “drink” pointed the way to “Eat at the Greens” featuring restaurant food from Sage organic, 800 degrees, Fat Dragon, Locol and Kogi amongst others.. You can even pre-order fancy picnic boxes (over $100 apiece) to be picked-up when you arrive.

I opted for a $12 fancy hot dog, a $12 vodka mule and a $12 Cuvée de Matsumoto beer from Craftsman Brewery, at only two dollars more than a $10 a Coors, worth it. I also had a to-die-for lavender lemonade ice cream from Front Porch Pops for $4. They didn’t confiscate the packet of nuts stashed in my bag, so I’m sure I could have gone cheaper on the eating side.

Vendors and sponsors were limited and highly curated and included Tom’s shoes, Hendrick’s Gin and Califia farms. Port-a-potties stations were in multiple locations throughout the venue, as well as water refill and phone charging stations.

With an interactive tent for kids hosted by Kidspace complete with a mini drum circle, things to play and climb upon, and instruments to explore, it’s as if the festival was designed by a discerning hipster PTA group.

The curation extends to the musical line-up and to the excellent staging and sound. In a Los Angeles Times review of Saturday night, reporter Mikael Wood noted the absence of any surprising or cutting-edge music, deeming it “unremarkable.”

I get his point. Tom Petty isn’t Iggy Pop. He didn’t refuse to play “American Girl” or offer up an an electronica version of “Freefallin.” There was no mosh pit, or stage diving, no Beyoncé popping out as a surprise guest.

But as long as the musicianship continues to be super kick ass, I’m fine with that. I wasn’t able to hit up everyone on Saturday’s line-up which in addition to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Alabama Shakes included soul outfit The Meters, Jeff Goldblum (yes, that Jeff Goldblum) and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra and Dawes, however what I did check out was soulful, joyful and top-of-the-line.

Soul singer Avery*Sunshine started things off in the smaller Willow tent, but her voice could fill a stadium. Backed by her tight band including her guitar player husband, she is endearing and talented, bringing Aretha Franklin and Al Green to new life, and rocking a keyboard while lifting her soul-scraping voice to the heavens.

I next caught the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who played a longer set on the main stage, doing the Lord’s work making sure New Orleans jazz never dies. Some of their more extended, jazzy riffs were a fine enough substitute for tipsy festival trance dancing.

Probably the most seemingly out-of-place act in the line-up was the Live, a Pennsylvania alt-rock band with a string of mid ’90s hits. I quickly realized how they fit in, not solely to garner nostalgia amongst thirty-somethings, but because Live was one of the non-grunge bands that was really, really good, and thankfully are still really good. They are also fresh and eager, recently reunited after a contentious break-up. Lead singer Ed Kowalczyk seemed elated to be there as the audience sung along with him to “Lightning Crashes” and “I Alone.” They had two drummers, as the original drummer Chad Gracey had one injured arm in a sling and apparently didn’t want to let that stop him from missing the show, so he was set up on a drum kit alongside replacement drummer.

Next to Live and Tom Petty I enjoyed Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires the most. Charles Bradley is a not-to-be-missed late-in-life success story not unlike the late soulstress Sharon Jones (in fact, they share the same label, Daptone.) Bradley is backed by a group of talented Midwestern, mid-twenties looking musicians who are so good and young seem as if they were all recently plucked out of music school. In contrast the flashily dressed sixty-eight year old Bradley is known for his sky-screeching scream, quirky dance moves and heartbreaking delivery. His much lauded cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” was a highlight.

As the summer light faded and the crowd thickened Alabama Shakes took the stage, a band who has breathed new life into southern rock, fronted by one of the most enigmatic front woman around today. It was a treat to ease into the night with their soulful sound and a chance to see the young group at their peak.

Playing an over hour-long set, Tom Petty is still at the top of his game, his distinctive vocal character like a more elastic version of Bob Dylan’s and he has the same off-kilter appeal as Billy Bob Thornton or Steve Buscemi. He and the Heartbreakers are celebrating their forty-year anniversary this year and as he put it they were going to “drop the needle” along that long career all night. They did and it was wonderful.

Last night’s line-up was headlined by Mumford and Sons and included Andy Grammer, Weezer, and Fitz & The Tantrums among others, aligning with the festivals alt-rock, blues and soul general vibe.

As long as they keep the festival small (around 25,000 were in attendance according to L.A. Times) the line-up uncrowded and high-quality and the vendors well-curated, Arroyo-Seco could prove to be a reliable and welcome treat on the festival circuit, one that you won’t have to sell all your belongings to attend. So, if you don’t mind the drive, a bit of bougie and plenty of Tommy Bahama chairs, add this one to your list.

An editorial and feature writer specializing in music, beer, fashion and entertainment, Christine’s work has appeared both online and in print; most recently in October Magazine (Pitchfork, Conde Nast), and the award-winning OC Weekly. She lives with her husband and son on the cool side of Anaheim.

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