In every classroom, public event, or house party in the suburbs, there is always that one distinct iconoclast in the litter that refuses to fit the mold—that one punk, burnout, weirdo, cosplayer, or goth that welcomes the cruel risks of being different for the sweet sensation of individuality. Now imagine that in Orange County, the Mecca of American suburbia, every single one of those misfits assembled at once among their favorite cultural icons. For one weekend event, the outright rejection of the status quo becomes the status quo, so that all freaks and geeks within the area can unite at last. This is Beach Goth 2016.
While Coachella lures attendees to a secluded and spiritual desert valley, and Lollapalooza makes a backdrop of the shimmering Chicago skyline, Beach Goth is sanctioned smack-dab in the middle of a corporate business park. Save for those with an affinity for mundane chain restaurants or offices of IBM and Robinson Pharma, the neighborhood hosting Beach Goth is certainly no quaint festival destination, but something about OG punk rock acts performing in the exact monotonous environment that spawned the culture in the first place felt electric.
One surefire highlight of the first day was darkwave synthpop trio Cold Cave, who entered the stage in all black with matching sunglasses and leather moto jackets in the peak afternoon heat, personifying the festival’s title with ease. Ringleader Wesley Eisold’s hardcore vocal timbre captivated the masses with nothing more than two synthesizers and a drum machine to accompany him. Early acts like this should remind festival-goers what they can discover just wandering and listening rather than stopping in late just for the headliners.
Moments later on the outdoor RX stage, Chicano Batman could be found psychedelically serenading hundreds of their SoCal die-hards. This is a band that epitomizes the local LA scene, having rallied this whole chunk of the state independently with a cocktail of Carlos Arévalo’s delicious porno-wah guitar solos, the tropical madness from frontman Bardo Martinez’s vintage organ, and matching blue tuxedos all around. But the swath of fans singing along to Martinez’s Spanish lyrics couldn’t begin to rival the hype for Albert Hammond Jr. of The Strokes, who was scheduled at the same stage shortly afterwards. Hammond is an artist with an unconscionably high expectations to live up to in a live setting after strumming alongside Julian Casablancas and the boys for so many years. However, with his signature hyperactive riffs, a surprisingly strong vocal presence, and a modicum of energy that The Strokes have rarely matched in their entire touring history, it became clear during a performance of “GfC” that Hammond had thwarted all doubts and stole the RX stage for the entire first day.
Later, the “punk poet laureate” Patti Smith took the RX stage to remind every other act at the festival where their sound comes from. Drenched in eerie blue and yellow lights, the veteran singer-songwriter emerged to insane roars from the crowd as she announced it was time to “get this shit rolling.” At 69 years old, Smith still moves with the same vitality as she did decades ago, giving the crowd a pulsating nerve of energy as she danced and thrusted her hand out into the crowd for every punk anthem. In her relatively short set, Smith traversed across the highlights of her storied career, opening with the upbeat rollings of “Redondo Beach” and “Ain’t It Strange,” reaching for the outstretched arms of fans and chastising even some for holding up their cell phones. Smith spun and shook with an inherent agelessness in her soul, ending her deeply poignant presence with a throat-burning cover of The Who’s “My Generation.”
Meanwhile at the BGV dome stage, an ostensibly drunken Eric Andre could be seen in between bands stripteasing and berating audience members. Andre introduced The Faint, noting “They’re from Omaha, Nebraska, and I ain’t talking about 311, people,” and proceeded into a “311 was an inside job,” monologue. All early 2000s throwback gags aside, The Faint’s repertoire of classic synth rock anthems was one of several lethal doses of indie-era nostalgia for the average twenty-something Beach Goth audience member. But Beach Goth wasn’t comprised exclusively of the OC’s disaffected youth, as the warmest memories of the night began flowing during TLC at dusk. The legendary denim-draped divas drew an elder crowd to the VIP lounge by the thousands, blazing through a greatest hits catalog so strong that even Generation Z could remember the 90s again.
The true blunder of Beach Goth, however, was the ambitious yet unsuccessful idea to stack major artists from polar genres on the same stage with little regard for the demography of audience members. This became woefully obvious as Melanie Martinez, recent pop industry plant made famous as a contestant on The Voice, attempted her nursery-gone-wrong shtick in front of a sea of disgruntled and impatient James Blake fans. Why she was positioned directly before two critically acclaimed avant-garde juggernauts (James Blake and Bon Iver) is a sorry mystery, but while a select few young fans clearly came for Martinez, the majority of witnesses were not exactly smitten by songs about sippy cups, or an awkwardly staged fight between her and a man wearing a wolf mask and a white lab coat. After each song, Martinez barely received an applause. Though it’s difficult to argue that she deserved one, the audience’s reaction overall was simply heartbreaking, and undoubtedly the fault of whoever organized the schedule.
Finally, James Blake creeped onto the stage, and the potent festival energy began to circulate at last. With negative space as a secret weapon sonically and visually, Blake and his two-piece backing band burned through the melancholic dream sequences from The Colour in Anything with utterly perfect execution, especially in Blake’s vocals. Despite the all-electronic instrumentation and somber tones, these songs are unequivocally more moving in a live setting than recorded. He left us with Wilhelm Scream, and as he repeated the sole line of the song, the swarming synths and flood lights consumed the crowd. When it seemed the lights couldn’t be any brighter, or that the droning chord couldn’t be more crushing, they just kept swelling. Beach Goth had just witnessed a supernova, and now Bon Iver would have to follow it.
There’s a certain point in live music where greatness cannot be explained by musicianship or visual counterparts. There’s a certain energy in a truly passionate performance that will never be captured by a review or a live stream. Bon Iver just started his first official tour in several years, on an album so experimental that it didn’t even sound like it could be played live at all. Justin Vernon walked onto the stage where James Blake’s sweat and tears were still wet on the floor, accompanied by two drummers, two multi-instrumentalists, and five saxophonists in a line. The vicious distortion chug of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” began, and while Vernon’s face was calm, he was attacking his Gibson SG. He started to whimper the first verse. If there is anything to feel other than music itself, Vernon does not feel it. The song is over too soon, but immediately he begins the a capella “715 – CRΣΣKS,” with the same demonic cyborg filter from the recording. There is complete and total silence in the crowd. He wants us to hear every single lyric, and we do. Several people began to scream “Holocene” in between songs, but their ignorance could not pierce the magic. “Skinny Love” was not played. “Holocene” was not played. Bon Iver has taken on a new form, and it is glorious. During a solo by his first-chair saxophonist on “____45____,” tears can be seen rolling down the cheeks of grown men. This performance cannot be described to any point of justice; only experienced. Millennials may never have Hendrix at Woodstock, but sets like Bon Iver’s at Beach Goth are the experiences that make this generation’s festivals more than a place to drink while bands play.
Words: Jamie Lawlor (with exception to Patti Smith’s review, written by Steven Ward)
Photography: Steven Ward