As the bedrock venue for a large portion of the burgeoning punk rock and rap scene of Orange County’s counter-culture, the Observatory in Santa Ana tapped into its first niche audience with the 90’s/early 00’s R&B, soul, and hip-hop tailored Soulquarius late last year. Mosh heads and hardcore lovers wouldn’t have to wait long to earn their own festival and with the successful debut of When We Were Young over the weekend at the Observatory grounds, it’s strange it took so long for something like this to emerge. There’s been plenty of Beach Goths and Burgeramas, but When We Were Young (WWWY) is one of the first festivals to truly cater to the virulent undercurrents that pulse beneath the broad rock umbrella of bands that often find themselves playing to the heavily inebriated, sweaty, fist pumping and head banging enthusiasts that sell out the Observatory most nights.
Over two blissfully cool days, an army of hardcore bands filled the two outdoor stages of the festival inciting swirling pits of hyperactive, tangled limbs and torsos. Bands like Moving Units kept the fire burning early in the day with their dance-punk antics, as frontman Blake Miller furiously screeched to the large crowd that had gathered at the Dancing in the Streets stage.
Staying true to its name, the smaller of the outdoor stages was reserved throughout the weekend for some of the crazier crowds, reaching a suffocatingly tangible boiling point on day two with Turnstile’s bat-shit crazy performance. Brendan Yates is all kinetic energy; someone must’ve strapped jumbo-jet engines to his feet before his set because throughout he was leaping and diving from the stage into the crowd. In response, the crowd formed a massive mosh pit that began to get bigger and bigger as it swallowed more and more fans, while on its fringes people crowd surfed their way towards their stage in the hopes of either reaching Yates or escaping the pit.
Senses Fail was a similarly wild showing at the Dancing in the Streets stage that saw bearded howler James Nielsen just as animated, accomplishing boggling jumps and tossing his microphone haphazardly into the air and somehow still managing to catch it (be it behind his back or under his leg).
Digging into the punk and emo tastes of the crowd, Saves the Day helped bridge the gap between underground hardcore and it’s more easily accessible versions, taking their melodic, pop-punk and exorcising the weariness from day two attendees. Leading the band and holding in his shrill croon all the saturated, crestfallen angst it could carry, Chris Conley made the anthems heard with songs like “At Your Funeral” and head banging ragers like “Shoulder to the Wheel.”
Further carrying the torch between the few genre barriers that existed at the festival, day one highlight act Streetlight Manifesto took their presence as the main stage’s only ska act very seriously, coming out the gate trombone and baritone saxes blaring. It terms of sheer dynamism the large collective of Streetlight had virtually no equal sonically for the entire festival, sending the crowd into a frenzy as Tomas Kalnoky and screamed alongside the frenetic thundering of brass, sax, percussion, and electric guitar rips that seemed to battle for dominance onstage.
Rounding out the festival’s makeup were some of the more lo-fi, but equally gut-punching indie and alternative acts like Tijuana Panthers and Beach Fossils, both of which reserved their more aggressive tunes for When We Were Young.
Observatory favorites Fidlar gave the festival the very best of their palpable hysteria as Elvis Kuehn screamed out the blood, sweat, and piss of heady anthems of punk, from “40oz. on Repeat” and “West Coast.” Dropping to his knees and lying on the stage floor, Kuehn was the festival’s second wind on day two as the heat started to set in–dead set on burning it up like they were the final act.
Surf-punk band The Frights kept the west coast love going, giving a sublimely teasing opening as lead singer Mikey Carnevale fingered the opening to “Stairway to Heaven” as he stood squinting at the edge of the stage into the crowd and sun.
L.A. sweethearts Silversun Pickups made their presence known on the main stage by accentuating their alternative shoegaze textualized rock with some heavy reverb and fuzz–every song seemed to deepen the threat of them blowing out their speakers. Brian Aubert shredded and howled his way through their more spastic hits, while co-singer/bassist Nikki Monninger rumbled along gloriously in “Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance).”
The evenings of both days were reserved for the giants of rock that glued all the niche tastes at the festival together, the only exception being the highly favored but exceptionally weird psychedelic rock of Foxygen. Channeling his best Bowie, lead singer Sam France was only missing a lightning bolt painted across his face as he danced in scarlet red hair and left the crowd swooning after his dreamy, baroque leg strutters.
Cage the Elephant exploded their way onto the main stage in spectacular fashion, with the veritable energizer-bunny of rock Matthew Shultz leaving no inch of the stage untouched from his stomping. With a catalog of hits that spans their entire discography, it was no surprise that every song received screams from the crowd and that nearly every word that Shultz hooted and bellowed out was echoed back to him. Jumping from one end of the stage to the other, covered in nearly blinding lights, Shultz danced and allured his way into the hearts of a crowd that didn’t need any more convincing that he was a god among garage and blues rockers.
Day two saw a similarly galvanized set from Taking Back Sunday and Choking Victim, both of which prepped the now filled festival for the weekend’s finale with Descendents.
With Davey Havok as its orchestrator, AFI left the festival a smoldering wreck on Saturday night as it jerked at the nostalgic heartstrings and fiery angst of the crowd. As the hardcore punk heroes of the night, Havok and company kept the punches coming as they burned through the grilling misgivings of anthems like “Miss Murder” and “Snow Cats.” Crouched on his perch atop the stage, Havok never broke eye contact with the crowd as he closed the gap between him and the raging crowd with outstretched arms.
Closing out the weekend Descendents laid the roots of punk rock and hardcore in California on thick as they reaped hit after a hit, holding the proof that punk only gets more potent with age in their hands. Fusing all the wit and melodic madness with their frantic, off-kilter playing, Milo Aukerman still wields the self-depreciating jests of the band with a conscious humor, opening with the ironically appropriate “Everything Sux” to close a festival that was everything but.
Words & Photography: Steven Ward