Goldenvoice’s This Ain’t No Picnic Serves Up An Indie Darling Dish Of Musical Delights MUSINGS + ATMOSPHERE PHOTOS: This Ain't No Picnic 8/27/22 8/28/22
PASADENA, CA- It’s hot in Pasadena this time of year. Actually, it’s hot everywhere in LA this time of year. Yet, the heat of LA has provided fuel to the fire of the music scene for years. This has never been more true that at the This Ain’t No Picnic music festival, which stewed together equal parts singer/songwriter, rap, hardcore, punk, and electronic music (plus everything in between), to make an indie darling dish that left participants satisfied, sweat-ladened, and dusty—like any good music festival should.
I moved through the festival alone—my festival days, I had thought, were long behind me. Yet, I could not deny the allure of the lineup. New favorites like Phoebe Bridgers, Julia Jacklin, and Beach House met old favorites like God Speed! You Black Emporer and Four Tet.
Thoroughly mid-30s, hat, sunblock, earplugs, and extra water in hand, I was ready to dive back into the weekend warrior music tendencies I held so dear a little over a decade earlier. But as I have grown older, I have traded the inner mosh pit and crowd surfing for a seat in the back, so as to observe the joyous spectacle that music provides whether feelgood, intense, cathartic, or hypnotizing. I love to be the one that watches now, though I wish I’d dance more.
I watched guitar riffs and synthetic electro beats bubble out of black speakers that pound red hot in the summer sun. Clothes slowly fell off the shining bodies of glitter gang members as they bound across dusty crowds of intermingled aliens, hippies, rainbow children, hardcore, punks, cis to trans lovers, and linen-clad beach residers that made up the beautiful spectrum of humanity that makes LA famous. Everyone danced together, kicking up dust, clasping hands—chilled beer or matte in the other—as everyone celebrated the common act of loving music as a community. The color, the light, and the spectrum of humanity that comes out at these LA events is why this town is so deserving of love despite it all.
I quickly found that the best way to make a 30-minute friend at a music festival is to walk around with a notebook, scribbling as you bob your head to the music and consider the scene ahead. “What are you writing?” “Are you covering the event?” “What do you think of this artist?” What was your favorite?” Every question was a moment of reflective connection amidst direct experience.
At the Genesis Owusu concert, a good-looking couple from Long Beach sat next to me in the shade cast by a nearby fence—I was always in the shade. The young man that went by “Champagne”—which either he, or the acid he took, had bestowed upon himself for the festival—dove into the pit like a puppy entering a dog park. His girlfriend and I laughed and agreed that our comfort was best found in the cool shade at a reasonable distance. But I have to say that Champagne’s timing could not have been more perfect.
Genesis Owusu jumped across the barrier with his backup dancers/screamers to join the mosh and sing from the breach mid-show—assuredly giving the event security a mild heart attack (he would not be the only one). The crowd ebbed up and down with the flow of his free hand, which conducted the music that came out of his mouth. As he lowered the volume of the show, the crowd crouched lower to the ground. The dust spiraled up towards the sky. At one point he stood above them all, relishing the moment of demi-godliness. When Champagne came back I could not help but note the serendipity of his brilliant timing. “I was right next to him!” he exclaimed.
When they asked me what acts they should check out next it was my turn to gush. “Julia Jacklin,” I said, “She is amazing.” Journalistic objectivity be damned. After hearing her, they agreed I was right. “What a songbird,” they said. Julia Jacklin was one of the primary drivers behind my interest in the festival. I found her music during a stint abroad and her upbeat melancholy sound was exactly what I needed at the time. She’d sung her way into my heart and I was finally getting to see her live.
She stepped onto the stage in braids, a bright red prairie dress, cat-eye glasses, and ankle-high socks. Her visage was like that of the Australian ranchers from decades ago. Her body only seemed to find comfort on stage while it held a guitar. At one moment, between songs she went to the mic to say, “I have nothing to say!” and as she began singing her next song, guitarless, her body held a kind of awkward reservation. Yet that reservation was never heard in her voice, which sang free and loud across the main stage. She was utterly charming.
Courtney Barnett took the stage as the evening began to set and the air was finally cooling. Time for a mid-festival beer and a picnic table to enjoy her show.
Barnett looks like a girlfriend I’d wished I’d lost and her Americana, country, California music vibe illuminated the rosey Angeles mountains that jetted up steeply behind the stage. A couple of young men sat behind me at the table. I later heard a comically loud and assertive voice say, “I don’t know about you, but I think Courtney Barnett is the greatest songwriter of our time.” They had cast a line to find out why I was writing at the table and it worked. I happily turned around to discuss the point and we laughed at how easily I was to lure in with the talk of music.
But I soon found that they were more interested in the likes of Avalone Emerson and Gerd Janson. They had come to the festival later in the day and were starting their weekend off with some Danilo Plessow. “Ah… electronic dance bums,” I thought. These young men had come to dance. I mentioned my plan to go see Four Tet + Floating Points the next day and they threw their heads back in agreement that the duo would be phenomenal. However, it turned out I would never catch Four Tet + Floating Points. Throughout the entirety of their four-hour-long set, there was a line into the performance space, so I contented myself with listening here and there on the outside.
Day one was getting late and the crowd had grown exponentially from my noontime arrival. LCD Soundsystem capped the night off and I spent most of the concert talking to three young boys—late high school or maybe college age, I can never tell—about the discipline needed to write. It is a conversation I have had time and time again with random strangers, reminding people that if you wanted to write, it did not initially matter what the subject was. “Write about the coffee you are drinking,” I said. “Write about the fact that you do not know how to write.” I gave them examples from the journal I had kept throughout the day.
At first, I had written simple things: “Hana Vu – Floppy bucket hat. Awkward in a sweet way. Voice 5x’s the size of her body. Garage band indie.” And then my observations grew in detail as I watched the Le Tigre and LCD Soundsystem shows that evening: “There is a point when you are writing about music and it becomes less about the music and musicians and more about the people listening to it. The shapes the audience makes, the colors they wear, and the joy people feel with listening and moving to curated sound. It is an experience that is emotional and holds a transparent color that only the soul can see.”
After a few more moments of a pep talk, the young boys said their goodbyes and moved closer to the transparent soul color that LCD Soundsystem sang about as I watched the hands of thousands of fans fly through the light show emanating from the stage. Every once in a while the crowd moved as one organism and then the night came to a close and it was time to go home, day two still ahead.
I was slow to start on day two. Day one had been long and left me sun fatigued. Regardless, I was looking forward to the next day’s lineup. Interestingly, I observed more and interacted less on day two than on day one. Perhaps I had fallen into a comfortable kind of invisibility. Perhaps it was the nature of the lineup. Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps I was tired. Regardless, I liked my newfound invisibility. In some ways, I was more of a fan that day.
The day started slow. I caught bands like They Hate Change, who deserved a later billing so more people could catch and discover their truly awesome rap set, and Zulu, who I had not planned to see, but whose magnetic performance pulled me in from afar and made me more of a death metal hardcore fan than I might have imagined. I’d caught Shame on the recommendation of my editor and noticed how their lead singer, Charlie Steen, had an uncanny ability to make you think that he was talking only to you throughout the performance. Between bands, near the side stage, I took a nap in one of the few lush grassy areas in the shade. The warm air blew over my face and I could hear the melodic thump of music in the distance through my earplugs.
Musical surprises came later in the day when I headed back to the main stage, just missing WetLeg—which I am still kicking myself over. Slowthai played next. He is a British rapper that reminded me of The Streets—I am obviously poorly versed in British rap since this is a pretty basic go-to for anybody.
I sat near a man who, before he told me his opinion of the show asked, “Are you related to him in any way?” After saying I was not, he voiced his lukewarm feelings about the concert. But I contend that Slowthai’s performance gave me more to write about than most.
Slowthai walked onto an empty stage in a pair of long plaid shorts that might have been mistaken for boxers. A patchwork of tattoos covered his torso like high school sketches on a desk. He rapped in a nearly antagonistic, self-contained kind of way. He kept his energy to himself rather than sending it out to the crowd. He rather required the crowd’s energy to come to him. It was as if the spectacle performance, fame, and idealization were not worth his time. His seemingly detached antagonism was the basis for many fans’ point of contention (I don’t think Americans appreciate performative irony much), but I found that it fit Slowthai’s music to a tee, which has found its base in political statements and sticking it to the man. Not to mention that, despite his intimidating personage, he talked about love and freedom over and over again.
I wondered as well if the basis for his withholding of too much energy was a result of just how his music came about in a literal sense. His stage name, Slowthai, came from an early speech impediment that the rapper had overcome. The “Thai” of Tyron Kaymone Frampton spoke slowly, hence, Slowthai. I rather imagined that his stage presence had a real background in reflection and the amusement he found in his circumstances as a result. “Is this a game?” He laughed between sets.
Next on stage was IDLES, another band that my editor loves, and the band that the man sitting next to me came to see that afternoon. I was interested to see what they had in store. Their show helped me realize a few things about hardcore rockers that I had perhaps forgotten in recent years.
First, no one loves their own music genre more than the hardcore crowd, performers included. The music does not allow for detachment by definition. Hardcore performers leave every inch of themselves on the stage. Audience members always lose themselves in the music. Everyone screams and slams their bodies together as a way to dig through the rough topsoil of everyday life to reach the soft earth of love underneath, their fingers and bodies bloodied in the process.
Second, hardcore fans are by and large total softies. There is real care for the people around them and while IDLES often splits the crowd in two so that they can run into each other in a fury mid-show when they observed that some decidedly not hardcore fans were in the front row (waiting for Phoebe Bridgers who was on next), they instead reminded the crowd to take care of each other and thanked the security staff that watched out for the decidedly bewildered and unintentional spectators.
As the show approached its end the crowd began to shift as it is want to do, everyone trying to see their next favorite band in and among very tight set times. The man next to me, clearly a massive fan of the IDLES, was incensed to see people actually leaving. I could not help but smile at the not-so-subtle fandom behind the statement.
Throughout the rest of the day I moved around quietly, the hardcore and rap vibes of the early day had melted into a softer etheric vibe that night. After catching Beach House, I went to go see the last band of the night, who played on the small stage while The Strokes played on the main stage to close out the night: God Speed! You Black Emperor. They were a band I had loved since college and whose album I still regularly listen to on vinyl at home, having lugged it all over the country for over a decade. They are a niche band, considered odd by many, and therefore, total catnip for a person like me.
The band’s opioid ephemeral sound grew and crescendoed through each song, ending at the height of emotionality. Scenes of destruction, nature, winter, and empty cities moved in and out of each other as they were projected behind them. Before I knew it, I had forgotten about writing, I had forgotten about everything and I swayed back and forth like a snake in front of a charmer’s flute. I closed my eyes and the music moved through my tired body. It was the one moment in the festival I had let go—and then, almost ironically, someone wanted to talk to me.
It was the one time I didn’t want to talk. Whether due to fatigue, alcohol, drugs, or a language barrier, the man had a hard time making out the words he wanted to say. So he pantomimed, “Great show! Great music, right?!” I agreed kindly, but the spell over me had been broken and I had been slammed back down to earth. It was hard to hide my disappointment and the man soon got the hint and tried to leave me in peace.
I looked over towards the exit through the crowd to see my editor utterly destroyed from two days of intense photographing in the summer sun. I recalled the days when I would lug around 30 lbs of equipment and run all over an event shooting madly… I waited for the song to end and took pity on him and left the last show a little early. I resolved to catch the Toronto band again someday. I would track them down, come hell or high water.
We walked toward the car for the last time, tired, but contented with the weekend. It had been a good festival. It was one of the first times that I felt like life truly had begun to move past the hell of the last two pandemic years. It was a nice way to emerge back into the world. I can’t wait to do it again next year at This Ain’t No Picnic.