The Arroyo Seco Weekend Has Landed

Arroyo Seco Weekend
Rose Bowl grounds

Hey kids, a new music festival has landed in SoCal. This weekend was the inaugural, two-day Arroyo Seco Weekend, at the Rose Bowl. The line-up demonstrates the festival’s identity as a jazzy one with plenty of rhythm & blues, and a sprinkling of classic rock on top. Beyond that, the expansive grounds, which included art installations, local food vendors, a kids’ zone, and homey touches, fostered a comfortable environment in which crowd members seemed equally inclined to guzzle suds or enjoy a day at the festival, family picnic style. Unfortunately, this reporter was only able to attend the first day of the festival, but the following reflects the experience.

Free parking! There’s nothing to help one start the day off with a smile like going to a large event and discovering that there’s no fee to park; thus, the day began with a smile. After hoofing it a ways across the field adjacent to the Rose Bowl, going through the security and the ticket lines, music greeted the attendants in the form of drums; there was a drum circle at the children’s zone, which seemed to continue, unabated, throughout the entire day. The rest of the festival grounds covered quite a distance, wrapping about halfway around the actual Rose Bowl structure (which was not used) and extending some distance away. Much of the area was open and grassy and was bordered with vendors of local eateries, bars, lemonade stands, and general stores (which sold various sundries essential for surviving a hot and sunny day surrounded by alcohol and music).

At the time I arrived, the only act currently playing was Haley (Bonar). The trek to see her included walking over one of three bridges — all of which passed over a concrete channel. A large inflated red tube passed underneath the bridges; this was one of the art installations. The red tube’s proper name was Red Line. Designed by Doron Gazit, Red Line symbolized the global threat of various ecological threats. Perhaps it was meant to be ironic that the Red Line only appeared to be an oversized inflated tube that sat, forlornly, at the bottom of a concrete channel.

The crowd around the northernmost stage, Sycamore Stage, may have numbered in the hundreds in the early afternoon. People seemed to be enjoying themselves as they danced, sipped beer, or sat at their picnic blankets, applying suntan lotion, to the tunes of the indie rocker. After taking in the scene, I cased the grounds on the way to southernmost stage, The Oaks Stage. Along the way, there was more inflatable art (this one looked like several gigantic piles of inflatable marshmallows), which I did not investigate further; some “official” Arroyo Seco Weekend designer food vendors, which sold colorfully labeled refreshments like Yoga-urt.

On The Oaks Stage, Preservation Hall Jazz Band rolled out some pretty good jazz. The mood was light and hopping, and helped establish the essential thread of jazziness to this festival. Crossing one of the bridges back to the eastern grounds of the festival, I found that the Bennie Maupin Ensemble was already in high gear with a bit more worldy jazz at the Willow Stage, which was, thankfully, in a large tent. And so the day essentially went; trucking from stage to stage, festival goers would experience acts based in styles stemming from the blues, be they towards the direction of jazz and soul or rock and roll.

The festival’s design was solid, featuring enough bathrooms and free water-filling stations to satisfy the essential human needs, and with enough of an artsy touch to make it feel peaceful and welcoming. One highlight along those lines was the various festival library stations. That is, throughout the festival grounds, there were several book stations created (by the students and teachers of Pasadena’s Side Street Projects) to resemble iconic Pasadena architecture, and filled with books that Golden Voice had purchased from Vroman’s Bookstore. Guests were free to borrow a book to read during down time, or in the event that they weren’t thoroughly engaged by watching John Mayall crank out some classic rocking blues.

At about the mid-day point, Jeff Goldblum & The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra changed things up significantly. This was unavoidable considering Goldblum’s status as a film star. He handled the crowd wonderfully by opening up with a game of six degrees of separation: prompting the crowd to name a film, and he would trace its connection back to himself. He also proclaimed that, for him, today was like the Godfather’s wedding day, and he couldn’t refuse a guest a request; thus, he said he’d be posing for pictures with each and every one of them after his set. In between his crowd-pleasing bouts of banter, he proved himself a very good jazz pianist. He was flanked by a terrific set of musicians, featuring sax player James King, whom Goldblum introduced as the “Mayor of Pasadena.”

Meanwhile, Canadian rockers Broken Social Scene announced that they brought love with them with their groovy rock tunes, which included some nice horn work. On the stage across from them, L?VE veered off a bit in the grunge direction. A featured moment in their set included a recorded inspirational speech by Johnny Cash, which was followed by a cover of “I Walk the Line.” Bouncing back to the Willow Stage, Roy Ayers’ guitarist was wailing something fierce on an intense solo that took the music right to the edge of incoherency, and then dropped it right into the clutches of Ayers, who took it on home with some of the meanest xylophone playing one is likely to hear on this Earth.

Soon after that, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires hit the most poignant note of the day. After warming up the crowd with some righteous R&B, including “Nobody But You,” Bradley announced, “Ladies and Gentlemans [sic], I beat the cancer!” He then kicked back into his soulful singing and shouting to complete a great set, while William Bell kept things going with a decent vibe at the Willow Stage. Next, it was time for Alabama Shakes.

Alabama Shakes was probably the perfect choice for a headliner for this festival. Their blend of rock and heavy blues seemed to embody the festival’s identity perfectly. The only problem was that much of her blues was not heard. By this point in the day (around 7:00), The Oaks Stage was all but inaccessible due to the dedicated audience members having staked their ground hours prior. The amplification system put out a quality sound…just not enough of it. For anyone, like me, who had spent the day wandering from stage to stage, it was impossible to get anywhere near the optimal viewing area without pushing, climbing, and knocking over someone’s brewskies.

During the louder moments of “Dunes,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Miss You,” Alabama Shakes owned that venue, but during the quieter moments, all one could hear was the general hubbub of their fellow concertgoers. And so, a great set, which featured the above and other great songs like “On Your Way” and “I Still Ain’t Got What I Wanted” was watered down by the experience. To typify the experience, during the change of “Gimme All Your Love,” the crowd applauded loudly — as if the song had been finished — and lead singer / guitarist Brittany Howard sort of grinned in a way that said, “You fools, the song’s not over yet.”

After Alabama Shakes wrapped up their set, The Meters greeted wandering audience members with some pretty good jams at The Sycamore Stage. Naturally, most of the crowd wandered back to The Oaks when it was time for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Petty greeted the crowd by asking, “Have you got your mojo? Say, ‘Yeah!’” The band then kicked into a great set of hits spanning their 40 year career. Petty pointed out that in the span of their career, he viewed their catalog as a “40 year record, and tonight we’re going to drop the needle all over it.” And so it went.
They played “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “You Got Lucky,” “Free Fallin’,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Learning to Fly,” “Refugee,” and pretty much every other iconic tune in Petty’s catalog. For encores, they rolled out “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl.” The choice to have Petty as the headliner for day one of the Arroyo Seco Weekend cemented the festival’s identity as one of classic rock and blues with one scoop of serious jazz and one scoop of pop-friendly rock ‘n roll.

While overall, the festival had a good vibe, some great acts and music, and was tightly run (virtually all the acts started promptly at their scheduled times), it was a little rough around the edges in terms of accessibility. This was also noticeable when it was time to leave, as the parking area was a bit of a maze, and in several instances, drivers were seen to lean out their windows and plead with passersby for directions out. Once they made it out, however, it is likely that their experience at the inaugural Arroyo Seco Weekend will have them keeping an eye out for the next one.

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