June 23-24, 2018
Arroyo Seco Weekend is not fussy. The beer is thick with local crafts, the something for everyone eats abundant with vegetarian options, and, yes, it felt like a day in the park with a rich soundtrack. The inclusive, relaxed setting and vibe made for one of most satisfying fest experiences I’ve had outside New Orleans. Goldenvoice worked out many of the freshmen kinks to bring us a uniquely L.A. area festival that was musically textured and easy to navigate, with zero attitude, when it so could have gone the other way.
No need to pony up for VIP treatment here. Getting around was no issue, food and (pricey) drinks were never too far, Rose Bowl bathrooms were always an option, and while the Oaks stage was packed for headliners, it was manageable and easy to get close throughout most of the day. Oh, did I mention parking was included with entry?
Even with only three stages, I still racked up 7-8 miles a day covering 30 of 36 acts over the weekend, but the 8th and 9th holes and driving range of Brookside felt like carpet compared to most fests. Near perfect June weather helped.
Saturday highlights started with Typhoon in the Willow Tent, which was relocated and expanded from last year (and a big improvement). Yes, the “Indie rock” catchall is overused and I’ll just say I dug this larger outfit from Salem, Oregon with Adam Morton in front on guitar and vocals and Jen Hufnagle’s fiddle. I gave Dwight Twilley a chance and glad I did. FOMO hit hard with the North Mississippi Allstars up against Pharoah Sanders. Bassist Carl Dufrene joined NMAS after a long stint with Anders Osborne and couldn’t be a better fit.
John Coltrane changed all music forever and Pharoah Sanders played alongside Coltrane in the mid-60s. Sanders’ set was a rare chance to hear this jazz master create waves of beauty. Moments where we stop and the chatter fades away are in short supply these days. That a more youthful audience was utterly captivated was not lost on me. Meanwhile, Jeff Goldblum was terminally cheeky, leading the Snitzers in a packed and appreciative Willow Tent, while Austin’s Shakey Graves played with his usual conviction and energy at the Sycamore Stage.
Kamasi Washington is a musical messenger of humanity and unity. His Oaks set included material from his epic new project “Heaven and Earth” while featuring his father, Rickey on soprano sax and flute. Milk Carton Kids brought their quieter harmonies to the Sycamore Stage. Alynda Segurra with Hooray for the Riff Raff was resisting long before the #, and they made it count in the Willow Tent. A little louder and harder than other years, when fiddle player Yosi Perlstein was part of the mix.
Then, there were The Pretenders, who pretty much owned the weekend. Chrissie Hynde and original drummer Martin Chambers lost nothing of their attitude working through a career spanning set on the Oaks stage. Margo Price’s honky tonk energy in the Willow Tent was a personal favorite of the day, as well. Alynda Segurra, Chrissie Hynde, Margo Price. Potent female voices this Saturday.
ASW schedules the last two acts with no overlap to the other stages, and the Oaks crowd swelled. I managed a few long shots of Jack White towards the end of the set and made my way over to Gomez in the Willow Tent with just enough time for the bouncy “See the World”, before gearing up for Mr. Neil Young.
Other than Farm Aid, Neil and POR have no other dates on calendar and their appearance was a big get for ASW, IMHO (he is touring solo, however). The set was loose and seriously unstructured. He didn’t have a setlist – literally, because, it was, well, “a list”. Opening with a near 20-minutes of “Like an Inca” from 1982’s Geffen kissoff, “Trans” was true to form and took no time going deep. Following that up with “F*!#in’ Up” into “Cortez the Killer” was pretty splendid, and there were many moments throughout when Young, the Nelson brothers and bassist Merlyn Kelly would circle up like some pagan ritual, each egging the others on. Good stuff. A POR detour took a little air out the set, especially, Micah Nelson’s “Everything is Bullshit”, and I felt the same way about the tune, but Neil appeared delighted to play sideman to the boys, and in fact, was engaging and really relaxed throughout. Well over two hours later, Young dialed it down for a lovely “I Am a Child” and “Lotta Love” and gave the captive crowd the “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Hey, Hey, My, My” they craved. Bows ensued after “Powderfinger”, but yes, there was more. “Ohio” seized the moment, and “Down by the River” took its time before “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” capped it. Didn’t crack my top five Neil shows, but very satisfying, indeed.
When the lineup broke, I thought Sunday was the weaker day (I was wrong). I was a little slower getting out the door, so I missed out on the jamgrass of Trampled By Turtles. Instead Wendy, Lisa and the rest of Prince’s Purple Rain Band, The Revolution, were not a bad way to get Sunday going. Margaret Glaspy is getting plenty of attention these days, and I warmed up to her spare trio more than at last year’s Newport Folk. Got jangly with The Bangles and all of their original lineup at the Oaks, who opened with their cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter” that had me in a good mood. But, the best was yet to come. Fantastic Negrito was, err, pretty fantastic. Bouncing around the stage with sharp tongue and guitar, he also provided the best capture from over 3K worth of weekend shutter snaps.
The Willow Tent really proved to be the heartbeat of ASW and that would continue until Aaron Neville closed it to persistent requests for an encore. But I digress. Alanis Morissette kept the power coming from a later afternoon Oaks set, one that had folks buzzing loudly. Los Lobos sounded as good as ever, working in “Will the Wolf Survive” early. Dorothy Martin went “Down to the Bottom” by the time I caught up with her and her band mates in the Willow Tent, an appropriate lead in to the howling bluster of Gary Clark, Jr. at the Oaks. The Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, played to an unfairly sparse Willow Tent audience as most of the population moved over to Oaks for Robert Plant and the Sensational Shape Shifters. I covered Plant’s Orpheum Theatre date in March, and the show writ large is even more breathtaking. Generous in its rearranged Zep material and tripling down on the Sahara meets the Delta influences on tunes like “Carry Fire” and the Plant Bukka White staple, “Fixin’ to Die”, Plant honors generations of American blues and roots while embracing borderless multi-culturalism. When introducing Leadbelly’s “Gallows Pole”, Plant remarked how Leadbelly “created a lot of rock songs and didn’t know it, but…he fuckin’ did”. Another ASW highlight, for sure.
Aaron Neville’s evening performance didn’t veer much in content from recent years, but he brought a little something extra to familiar tunes (and try not to melt a little bit when that falsetto wraps itself around “Tell It Like It Is”). The close of Neville’s set was one of the most enthusiastic moments of the weekend. No encore, but that didn’t stop the crowd from trying to get him back for one more. Nobody wanted to leave. Third Eye Blind was a gas to shoot and while I lean agnostic to Kings of Leon, I rather enjoyed 30 minutes of their closing slot.
Looking back a few weeks at ASW 2018, I got nothing but good memories to hold on to. Neither heavy handed with the branding or pre-packaged in presentation, and the ease of the experience meant more music and food to absorb. Ain’t that the point?
ASW is perfectly SoCal, and the lineup was not just another festival replicant with a change of scenery. Heck, name another fest west of the Mississippi where one could take in the spiritual sonics of Pharoah Sanders and cap the day with Neil Young. I thought so.
Until next year.