Featured Performances From Neil Young and The Pretenders Prove That Legacy Acts At Arroyo Seco Weekend Are Worth The Price Of Admission REVIEW: ARROYO SECO WEEKEND JUNE 23, 2018
PASADENA, CA- Arroyo Seco Weekend was a festival that seemed designed as a family friendly music festival. With a line-up that featured both sophisticated and legendary musical acts, the weekend certainly catered to a generally older demographic, but it’s hard to deny the fact that if you were there to appreciate music that has stood the test of time, or even dramatically effected the path of certain musical genres, then there was plenty to choose from.
With three stages that offered constant selection of diverse musical offering throughout the day, I took the opportunity to both revel in some nostalgia and dip my toe into the sounds of a handful of some very capable upstarts.
For those who say they “know” jazz, ask them if they know who Pharoah Sanders is. If they don’t, then they need to study up a little bit. I did.
My first exposure to this saxophone god was when I saw crate-digging for record, at a Goodwill, no less. I pulled from the assortment of musical theatre and Andre Previn albums a slightly worn copy of Pharoah Sander’s “Karma”. It’s lettering, bold and mystical, emblazoned on top and an image of Pharaoh sitting in a meditative position with his eyes closed, head tilted up, just called to me.
I purchased the album and immediately lay it flat upon my record player upon my return home. It was seriously a spiritual experience. One track, “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is a 32 minute masterpiece that’s as lush as any jazz arrangement I’ve ever heard. And Pharaoh’s technique is beyond reproach. Not only is it technically superior (there are passages where I had to lift the needle and replay certain part to just figure out where he took his breaths), but his passion reaches a boil about 9:40 in.
His set was the first of the day for me, and at 77 year old, I tempered my expectations of him. When I saw him and his band literally slowly take the stage with short aged steps, I tempered my expectations a little more. Things looks to move in slow motion as they reconfigured their position on the stage, and as their start time had passed, I truthfully was expecting the worst.
They brought the drums and piano closer to the center of the stage, creating a tighter nucleus around Pharaoh. Once the set-up was to Pharaoh’s liking, he slowly nodded his head to suggest that it was time to play some music. 10 minutes behind scheduled and the music commenced.
As soon as I heard Pharaoh push the air through his horn, all of my doubts and worries floated away. Pharaoh’s tone was strong. His breath support was contrary to his physical movements. It was powerful. He played like a lion.
He dipped into “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and during the call and response portion of the song where he urged the crowd to join him in yelling out, “The Power Of God”, it felt as if something mystical descended upon the early afternoon crowd. I’m personally agnostic, but if there is a God, he was there under that tent.
“My name is Seu George and this is my band, and we’re happy to be here. We’re going to play some Brazilian music.” That’s exactly what Seu George did.
The sun started to shine a little brighter when Seu started his set, and as festival goers unfolded their lawn chairs, kicked back and tried to cool off from the sun with a nice cold beverage, Seu Jorge’s Brazilian samba filled the air, keeping the mood light, breezy and festive.
I walked around the main stage festival ground to get a feel for the best possible areas to stand (for both acoustics and shade- trust me, you need to take advantage of the shade whenever possible. As I made my way far stage right in the crowd, I noticed that there seemed to be a couple dead spots where certain instruments were fairly inaudible. Maybe it was a bad mix, or maybe the guy at the soundboard just didn’t flick the “on” switch, but was odd because I was literally in front of one of the main speakers for the stage.
Seu gained considerable global popularity for his “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” David Bowie’s covers, but there were none performed at Arroyo Seco. He did perform a cover of Roy Ayer’s “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, which was very appropriate considering the summer’s rays illuminating the festivals stages and grassy knolls.
A rising artist on the roster for Arroyo Seco was Austin, TX native Shakey Graves (nee Alejandro Rose-Garcia). I had meant to see Shakey Grave performance at SXSW this year, but was unable to fit him into my schedule. Thank you Arroyo Seco putting him in your line-up.
Shakey Grave’s music is a seamless mix of blues, folk, and rock. While he is known for his stripped-down one-man shows (where his plays a kick-drum and guitar at the same time), he was backed by a full band when he took the “Oaks” stage.
I absolutely loved the energy, confidence and humor that Alejandro exudes on stage. His gravelly tenor wailed through songs passionately. Outspoken on social media when it comes to politics, he took a few moments to outwardly address the current state of politic in the country, letting his views of disapproval be known (to cheers, BTW). He joked that he’s currently on the “Shit’s Confusing Tour” and vented a little about the fact that social media is unrelenting with constant inundation of “did you know” news. He brought politics into his art when he performed “Word of Mouth” (I think), and got down on his knees with his hands behind his head when he sings about guns.
Alejandro Ended concluded his set like he started his career, bringing it back to his roots performing his song “Roll The Bones” without his backing band with just his guitar and kick drum. It was a rousing and invigorated moment of undeniable stage presence, and was a inspired midday selection by the talent coordinators of the festival.
I’ve seen Kamasi Washington a handful of times live, but with the release of his 2018 album, Heaven & Earth, I decided to check him out once again at Arroyo Seco.
I won’t lie, I think Pharaoh may have spoiled my enjoyment of Kamasi’s set. I could get down with the Kamasi’s progressive jazz stylings, but there was an intensity lacking from his main stage performance that I had just experienced with Pharaoh’s just an hour earlier.
The sound issues that I experienced during Seu’s set, weren’t resolved for Kamasi’s set. And that was a terrible shame because in jazz EVERY instrument serves as purpose and when you can’t hear a line or an instrument, you’re taking away a little bit of the composition’s soul. The amazing bassist Miles Mosely was on stage, and I could see him performing, but I couldn’t hear a single note he played.
Kamasi’s his recordings generally average about 7-8 minutes in length, so he only performed 5 songs, opening and closing his set with cuts from his newest album: “Street Fighter Mas” (opener) and “Fists of Fury” (closer). “Fists of Fury” is a cover of the theme from Bruce Lee’s movie Fist of Fury made plural to reflect the players in his band. Unfortunately, not all of the fists were properly mixed for the gig to give the performance a real powerful punch.
The Pretenders bridged the gap between punk and pop in the late 70s and have amassed a timeless repertoire of music that stands the test of time. Like their song catalog, the band’s front-woman Chrissie Hynde does as well.
Wow. Ms. Hynde was just as vivacious, spritely and sexy as I remember her from those MTV music videos from back in the day. And her voice was still as powerful and sensual as those recordings I still have on cassette.
“Hmm … What Am I going to do today,” Chrissie smiled as she addressed the audience before she and her band dove in a set of Pretenders’ classics, old and new. She wore a t-shirt that had on the front “Don’t pet me, I’m Working”. And that’s exactly what she did. In modern slang, she werked.
From more recent offerings like “Alone” and “Gotta Wait” (from their most recent album Alone) to their classics “I’ll Stand By You” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong””, it was a set that appealed to both long time fans and those who only has a top-40 knowledge of the band.
Throughout the set, she dedicated various songs to different people. She dedicated “Down The Wrong Way” to Neil Young, who played guitar on the album from which the song comes from, and who would grace the stage later in the evening. She dedicated “Back On The Chain Gang” to “your mother”, “Let’s Get Lost” to Chet Baker and “Thumbelina” to Lukas and Micah Nelson (Willie Nelson’s sons who were playing with Neil as part of Promise of the Real).
Towards the end of her set, she introduced her band mates before signing off with, “and I’m Chrissy, I’m from Akron,” and diving into a rocking “Middle of the Road.” Akron should be proud.
The only real scheduling conflict that I had on Day 1 of Arroyo Seco was between Belle and Sebastian and Margo Price. Belle & Sebastian’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister” is one of my favorite Chamber Pop albums on vinyl, but I had gotten a taste of Margo Price at Luck Reunion earlier this year, and was aching to catch a full set.
I started out at Belle & Sebastian’s stage, but their laid back mood just wasn’t jibing with me at the moment. I wasn’t really sure why that was (maybe it was a little mellow after a rousing Pretenders’ set?), so I kept walking to Margo’s stage. That was a good call.
By the time I arrived at the tent that Margo was performing in, she was already in the groove, wailing away with “Tennessee Song”. Her country stylings remind me of a little of Loretta Lynn; same kind of voice and same kind of blunt, tell-it-like-it-is attitude.
Her band was rocking. During “A Little Pain”, they went on a full on psych rock jam session. It was unexpected, but pretty damn awesome.
She covered Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (a song I had seen her perform at Luck Reunion- though the window of a chapel, no less), dedicated “Four Years of Chances” to all of her ex-boyfriends, and did a medley of drinking songs that started with her hit “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” and ended with Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River”. While I was hoping that she would have had a surprise guest join her on stage (She’s signed to Third Man Records that’s owned by Jack White who would perform later in the day, and she’s got a close relationship with Lukas Nelson who was playing with Neil Young for the evening’s final), that didn’t happen. In all honesty, she didn’t need anybody’s help.
There are a lot of female country singers out there these days, but none of them are as authentic and rooted in its essence as Margo Price. Her impressive sophomore album All American Made proved that didn’t didn’t suffer a sophomore slump. I’m hoping that she keeps the streak going with her future work
The sun was only starting to creep into the west when Jack White and his band took the main stage to play a 18 song set that included cuts from his solo albums, The White Stripes and The Raconteurs.
If I had to take one thing away from Jack White’s performance at Arroyo Seco Weekend it was that he’s a master of song-craft and he let’s the mood of the music guide the direction of his performance. While each song has its structure, if Jack is inspired to extend a riff for a little jam, he does so, and that’s what makes his performances so exhilarating.
For example, for the intro to “Seven Nation Army”, its ubiquitous bass-line was modulated and riffed up like I’ve never heard before. Sure, you could tell what song he was going to play, but the way he allowed for his band to expand on that musical theme was brand new (at least to me). You’ll probably never hear it played like that again.
I kind of expected Jack White’s Arroyo Seco Weekend performance to be more rooted in the classic blues and roots rock and roll that he’s known to perform so as to keep to the overall “classic” theme of the festival, but this performance was about as Alternative/Garage Rock as it could have been, and was surely a pleasant surprise for the younger fans in the audience.
“You’ve been California, and I’ve been Jack White,” Jack said before concluding his set. That was basically the only thing he said to the audience. He let his amazing compositions do the rest of the talking.
When I saw Gomez on the list of artists scheduled to perform at Arroyo Seco weekend, I penned them in as a band that I had to catch live. After all, they were touring in support of the 20 anniversary of their seminal album Bring It On, an album that I found back in college on a used CD rack at the local record store and basically listened to non-stop for a week while I was writing an anthropology paper.
There was something so awesomely eclectic about Bring It On that had me so addicted to it. It was college, so perhaps it was just perfect stoner music with its ADD musical stylings.
I was hoping that Gomez would perform the album in its entirety, and that’s what I thought at first. “Get Miles” and “Whippin’ Piccadilly” definitely seemed to indicate as much. But then they played “Girlshapedlovedrug” and my visions of a Bring It on playlist evaporated, which was a bummer because I was really looking forward to hearing “78 Stone Wobble” live.
Their setlist did still contain a handful of Bring It On cuts, and you could tell that those songs were the most popular with audience, as was evidenced when the cut the instrumentals from a chorus of “Get Myself Arrested” and you could hear the audience, including myself, was singing along.
At 72 years young, Neil Young can still shred with the best of them. Backed by Lukas Nelson’s Promise of the Real, Neil kept it loose and casual. He opened his set with an extended version of the seldom played “Like an Inca”, and after a false start to the following song due to a guitar not being tuned properly, Neil announced he was free wheeling his performance because he didn’t have a setlist. He joked that he could only imagine the kind of reviews he would be getting, but assured his devoted fans that they didn’t have anything to worry about because, “We know a lot of songs”. In Neil we trust. After all, he is rock royalty.
After diving back into the set with “Fuckin’ Up” and “Cortez the Killer”, he let the each of the Nelson brothers, Lukas and Micah, shine for a bit with their own performances of “(Forget About) Georgia” and “Everything is Bullshit” respectively. Each of the brothers embody the same spirit as their father, Willie, and their performances surely earned them some new fans on this night.
Then there was an awkward moment.
Prior to his performance of “I Am A Child”, Neil announced that the performance was dedicated to “the kids out there.” His anxious fans started to immediately cheer loudly … before he could finish his sentence with, “the kids in cages”. The crowd immediately hushed. It was one of the few political moments that I actually witnessed during the weekend, but it was a powerful statement. Despite the moment of “awkward”, it was a lovely cover of Buffalo Springfield song, and made clear where Neil’s head and heart lay.
Other obvious highlights from Neil’s set were the performance of his staples; a seven minute jam of “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, following which, Neil addressed the crowd as he tuned his guitar for “Angry World” raising the setlist issue with, “We just didn’t do a list… cause it’s a list, that’s why”. Laughter from the stage and the audience ensued.
Neil concluded his set with”Powderfinger” before coming back onto the stage for an encore at 11:16. His entire set exceeded 2 hours, proving that age is nothing but a number with Neil. This legend of Rock & Roll was in fine form, and only seemed to get stronger through the night, perhaps invigorated by the young players at his side, or the free wheeling spirit the permeated the air. Whatever it was, Neil Young rocks like a crazy horse, and he capped off the music on Day 1 of Arroyo Seco Weekend as only a legend could.