When Arroyo Seco Weekend debuted last year with its stellar lineup, excellent food and alcohol options, and soothing Pasadena locale, it proved that a festival could offer the family-friendly environment of a picnic at the park on a large scale. Returning for its second year on the green that surrounds the Rose Bowl Stadium, day one at Arroyo Seco was packed to the brim with a collection of rock, soul, and jazz performances. About as picturesque as you can get on a Saturday in the park in mid-June in Southern California, the scene was set as much by the bands that were playing as the families and kids running around with fresh-squeezed lemonade or melting ice-cream bars. Much like last year’s event, there was also a bridging of the often exaggerated generational gap in music with fans who grew up with Neil Young mingling with those who listened to it because mom or dad would play it in the car. That in itself is the acute and authentic wholesomeness that Arroyo Seco Weekend has to offer, and it makes for a damn good crowd to get lost in the music with.
As for the bands themselves, day one’s performers were not only eclectic in nature but also delightfully curated enough to compliment one another. Typhoon, one of the day’s earliest sets, garnered quite the crowd under the canopy of the Willow stage, with their off-kilter, baroque-rock anthems and lead-vocalist Kyle Morton’s crushing croons. While the band’s massive ensemble and intensely emotional approach to their instrumental-driven songs answer the question of what Arcade Fire would sound like if they’d continued to make Funeral-era music but with Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse at the helm, Typhoon exists on another plain entirely in the way their narratives enrapture even listeners who’ve never heard them before. Ending with the bleakly gutting but hopeful “Young Fathers,” Morton’s howls crack and broke against wave after wave of brass and string crescendo as the crowd roared the words back to them.
Only a few hours later Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra were tossing out jazz covers of Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone on the same stage to one of the most ravenous crowds of the day. Even when Goldblum wasn’t playing the piano but rather some ridiculous game of trivia and just being his charming self, you could just feel the electricity in the crowd. The actor turned piano player also brings a much-needed element to Arroyo Seco that pivots the festival from being a solely music-centered experience, and rather one of experience in general. Besides Arroyo Seco and the club in Los Angeles that he plays almost every Wednesday, where else can you go to see Goldblum tinkering away at the ivory to the tune of some blistering saxophone solos?
And speaking of saxophones, Kamasi Washington over on the Oaks stage spent his set baptizing the crowd in a tidal wave of jazz-sax wizardry. Some songs were anthemic blurs that would feel at home being the soundtrack of some sci-fi western epic from the 80s (or Street Fighter, which actually inspired one of Washington’s songs); while others were filled with the kind of nuanced vitality that required no spoken words, just the soothing grace of his saxophone and fellow instrumentalists. The Oaks stage was, in fact, a place of endless soul throughout the day with Brazilian singer Seu Jorge offering-up his samba-infused rock and funk to fans before Washington’s set. Then the Pretenders took the stage, and like the final piece in the soulful jigsaw puzzle that was Arroyo Seco Weekend’s first day, the English-American rock outfit gave the now massive crowd a sense of fulfillment with their wild, blues-rock tinted songs. Flanked by two guitarists who could absolutely shred, Chrissie Hynde was beyond flawless as she bellowed out classic after classic, ripping away at her own guitar as she did so. Time and age are meaningless constructs to the Pretenders, with Hynde and company sounding way better than when I first listened to their greatest hits on my mom’s iPod classic.
Hurray for the Riff Raff similarly held down the fort on the Willow stage with their own brand of folk-blues and Americana, which certainly felt right at home tucked into a slot just before the Pretenders. Alynda Segarra, in her now signature beret, was a standout act on day one as she crumpled up the Willow’s already immensely intimate acoustics and played like she was singing just a few inches from your face. A breathlessly talented vocalist at heart with the kind of songwriting that doesn’t just cut but rather itches perpetually in some forgotten part of your soul that you didn’t know was there, Segarra invigorates crowds with her sublime stories of female-empowerment and ecstatic takes on country-urban life.
Fans who left Segarra and the Pretenders set feeling like they’d been touched by lightning were met with the chamber-pop energies of Belle and Sebastian over on the Sycamore stage. Channeling all manner of indie-pop and glittering red and yellow, the Scottish band’s acoustic guitar melodies and violin-backed pieces made quite the impression on a crowd that had been fed rock and soul all day. Led by Stuart Murdoch and his wails, the band struck a chord in the crowd as the large ensemble fiddled their way into their hearts with their lush pieces. Fans that stuck around at the Sycamore were treated to a ska-revival and the stage’s final performers in the form of The Specials, who effectively rocked and grooved the stage until they were no longer allowed to. Collisions of brass, string, and guitars melted away under the nimble guide of vocalist Terry Hall and vocalist/rhythm-guitarist Lynval Golding. There really was no better way to help end Arroyo Seco Weekend’s first day, as it’s logical ending after such a mash-up of sounds and tones from its performers was indeed that of a ska-fueled rampage by one of the genre’s most apt bands.
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