Ohana Festival Embraces Musical Diversity

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Eddie Vedder / photo by Simone Goldstone

By Simone Goldstone, NB Indy Soundcheck Columnist

Ohana means family, and that was the theme of the Ohana Festival that took place at Doheny State Beach at the end of September.

From Eddie Vedder performing with his daughter, the collective efforts to protect our environment, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers stepping in to save the day when Kings of Leon bowed out to mourn a loss, the festival felt like family. Not just any family though, but Eddie Vedder’s easy-going, eclectic, grungy, psychedelic rock family.

The set times and the order the bands played in ensured boredom was forever at bay. Each genre and artist were taken into consideration, so each set transitioned seamlessly into the other, or woke the crowd up as the day changed into evening.

The proximity of the stages meant there was no desperate running around to make the next group’s set. The beautiful Doheny State Beach lay behind a fence, its sand spilling over, the perfect California carpet to watch the surfers ride out into pacific.

Ohana audience/ photo by Simone Goldstone

While a few hiccups marked the first day, such as Kings of Leon withdrawing due to the death of the band members’ mother, and lightening during Greer’s set that sent attendees evacuating, the festival overall was wonderfully organized and wildly successful.

The discovery of new artists, and the enjoyment of their predecessors, shone, as the generations of rock music took to the stage. Like the sphinx riddle: the fresher faces in the morning, their inspirations in the afternoon, and the evening reserved for legends.

Day 1

The festival kicked off with Modern Eyes, an indie-pop band that brightly burst onto the stage with happy, feel-good riffs. Their brand of danceable music set the mood for the day. Their upbeat songs reminded me of a poppier version of the Strokes meet the Cure.

Amo Amo took to the main stage next with swingy, tropical music. With butterfly shaped sunglasses, the frontwoman has voice reminiscent of Florence and the Machine. The deep bass and grooves were perfectly enjoyable.

Kevin Garret / photo by Simone Goldstone

Kevin Garret appeared after them, looking like a darker, sadder version of Ed Sheeran.

“I’m sad all the time, so that’s what my music is about,” he half-joked. His voice was beautiful and haunting, and the audience ate up the Grammy-winning sound.

Shocking the audience with awe and interest was Plague Vendor. The front man pulled off his shirt to repeatedly dive into the audience. Plague Vendor, reminding the OC of its punk roots, had the crowd in the palm of their hands.

“Everyone, form a circle around me,” Frontman Brandon Blaine called from the middle of the audience. “Now give me your sunglasses!”

Plague Vendor / / photo by Simone Goldstone

Like a séance, or punk rock exorcism, Blaine donned multiple pairs of mismatched glasses, while the crowd circled and chanted around him. Plague Vendor’s interaction with the audience was like none I’d ever seen before.

Plague Vendor had a fitting name for what was about to be a huge shock to the festival.

Orange County-based band Greer took to the stage next. Greer has truly come into their own. After playing with the Flaming Lips at the OC Fair and releasing a new EP, the young group sounded better than ever. With a wonderfully vulnerable stage presence from the band members who are barely out of their teens, the audience was amazed at their youth and talent.

Their charisma and skill carried the torch of indie rock into 2021. As Greer began their song, “Lullaby,” grey clouds gathered in the sky and flashes of lighting lit up the overcast beach. A disembodied voice rang from the speakers, telling us all to evacuate the area immediately.

Startled, the audience seemed shocked by the news.

“Look out for announcements of when it’s safe to re-enter,” the ominous voice spoke again.

Herded like cattle out of the festival grounds, nobody was sure what to do. With my car too far away to get to, and a dead phone, I was worried I’d be stranded. But the theme of festival, Ohana, was extended once again.

Picked up by friends and family of Greer, the kind group drove me safely back to my car. We ducked through the butterfly garden, leading out of Doheny State Beach, feeling like we were in a tropical adventure. After half an hour, the festival was announced back on.

The festival returned with the Regrettes. Front girl Lydia Knight lifted the mood with her youthful energy.

“What is with all these young groups and their talent?” An audience member whispered to me. The Regrettes’ cute and poppy punk and bright smiles pulled the crowd closer and gave us all a boost of energy. A gentle mosh pitt started in the crowd, patrons not letting the lightening sour their mood.

The smoky mists of the rain cleared, and the haze retreated back into the ocean, as if chased off by Lydia Knight’s bright smile and bubble-gum pink hair. The sunset started settling over the stirring pacific waves, and the crowd was grateful the day hadn’t been called off.

“Make a friend! I’ll be your friend,” Lydia said to the audience. It’s refreshing to see the accessibility of the younger bands, and as strangers met and danced with each other, the theme Ohana popped into my mind once more.

Black Pumas / photo by Simone Goldstone

With a little R&B, Black Puma perfectly turned the afternoon into evening as the palm trees lit up in neon colours.

The band CAAMP was next, a perfect mix of banjo and pop. Their indie blue-grass cool was totally new and exciting. Their song “Officer of Love” had the audience enraptured, the crowd singing back each word. The Townes Van Zant slow drawl and upbeat bass made CAAMP an instant favorite. Their songs “Vagabond” and “All the Debts I Owe” are ones I was ecstatic to be acquainted with.

My Morning Jacket appeared as the first headliner.

“Play the old stuff!” the audience yelled. As their set went on and they brought out the old favourites, the audience settled in. To me, it was clear that on the first day, the newer, younger bands reigned. The older generations should be glad they such an empathetic, socially aware, and talented groups of young musicians to keep music alive.

Eddie Vedder arrived just in time to save the day, pulling together an all-star band to make up for Kings of Leon’s absence.

Playing with a new band for the first time, it consisted of Chad Smith and Andrew Watt from the Red-Hot Chilli Peppers, Pino Palladino, and Glen Hansard. Vedder led a prayer for Kings of Leon’s mother, and he covered several of their songs, before closing the night with a rendition of Prince’s Purple Rain.

Backseat Lovers / photo by Simone Goldstone

Day 2

The first highlight of day two were the Backseat Lovers. With their long, wavy hair, ripped denim, and tight instruments, they supplied good old fashioned indie rock. They sounded like a more distorted, laid-back version of the Strokes, or a hippie version of the Killers. Inflatable beach balls bounced in the audience, reflecting the sun on the cloud-free day.

Mac DeMarco, festival veteran, indie-boy aesthetic inventor, appeared on the stage sans his band. Having seen Mac live many times, I’d never seen his solo set. He arrived, with his mask half-way down his face, lit cigarette dangling out of his mouth.

“I’m from Canada,” he said as greeting, tuning his guitar with his jovial light-heartedness. Starting with his classic hit “Salad Days,” the show felt more intimate and familiar without his backing band.

“If you know the words, please sing it. You can sing the guitar parts, too,” he joked.

Mac DeMarco / Photo by Simone Goldstone

I’d never seen Mac so engaged with the audience. A fan threw him a bracelet, and when he picked it up, the crowd cheered as if he pulled the sword from the stone.

He regaled the audience with tales of the 50 cigars accidently delivered to his trailer, which he shared with the Backseat Lovers. Isn’t that what makes festivals incredible? Having your favourite artists come together and hang out in one place, like a crossover episode of your favourite TV shows?

“Karaoke time, baby,” he joked, turning on the big band music. With a spy-tumble across the stage, Mac launched into Frank Sinatras’ “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

Mac was the perfect choice to make the audience feel like a friend, and to make everyone in the festival feel like family. This is the way Mac De Marco is supposed to be heard—stripped down, chilled out, and with a smiley face button on his bucket hat. He’s the harbinger of easy listening and breezy days, and today Mac was at his best.

Cold War Kids / photo by Simone Goldstone

Cold War Kids reignited the energy with splattered jeans and harder rock songs to change up the pace. Hailing from Long Beach, Cold War Kids put out a series of new albums over quarantine.

Glen Hansard, Irish singer-songwriter, wowed the crowd with his heartfelt music and award-winning songwriting.

“Performing’s like robbing a bank, you can prepare but there are always variable,” he laughed. As a surprise to the audience, photographer Danny Clinch came out onstage to join Hansard on the harmonica.

Maggie Rogers / photo by Simone Goldstone

Maggie Rogers revamped the atmosphere with her energetic and incredible performance. It was the perfect segue into Eddie Vedder’s solo set to close out the night.

Sitting on a stool, with purposely static old TV graphics as the backdrop, Vedder was haloed by a single spotlight.

“It’s like hanging out with friends,” he told us, and that is exactly what it felt like as he connected with each audience member. He started with telling the story of visiting George Harrison at Friar Park, and sang Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy.”

Vedder covered everyone from the Pretenders to R.E.M, interspersed with Pearl Jam tunes and his own solo songs, such as “Far Behind” and “Rise.”

Eddie’s daughter, Olivia Vedder, dressed like a renaissance princess with braided hair and a satin dress, sang “I Am My Father’s Daughter.” Once again, the theme of Ohana filled the air.

Along with his own solo music, the previous evening’s superstar band came out and the group covered some Who songs, then the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” He closed the night with a rendition of Neil Young’s “Keep on Rocking in the Free World,” as Chad Smith smashed his drum kit Keith Moon style.

Day 3

Day 3 burst to life with the new 70’s psychedelia inspired group, Night Moves. A small but dedicated fan based lined up at the barricade early to catch this Minneapolis indie band and their wail of the wah-wah pedals.

With a burnt orange overshirt that matched his sunburst guitar, front man John Pelant used fun distortions to give a rocking show. The guitar solos were incredible, and it’s good to see the home state of Prince and Dylan still producing great musicians.

Festival indie kings Real Estate played next. With their seminal hit “Green Isles,” they’ve played the festival circuit since 2015. If we’re sticking with the theme of Ohana, one can see music passed down through the generations: Pearl Jam, Real Estate, Night Moves. It’s a wonderful example of how music changes and grows upon what was already built. Real Estate, appearing in a smiling flower t-shirt, powder pink guitar, and thick aviators, reminded the large crowd what indie bands at festivals do best.

La Luz / photo by Simone Goldstone

Shovel and Ropes, with their black sunglasses and harmonica, gave the day a country feel.

Cavetown, an incredibly young, self-made internet band from England, disguised their sad lyrics with nice shoe-gaze melodies. Their guitarist, with bottle-bleached hair, looked like a young Kurt Cobain.

“I’m really just a kid,” singer Robin Skinner lamented with his red mullet. Somebody threw him a stuffed turtle, which he graciously accepted and placed atop the keyboard. Despite the heavy subject of the lyrics, such as divorce and depression, the group masks these maudlin thoughts with distorted, fun melodies. This contrast reflects the newer generation’s struggles with technology and societal pressure, wanting to appear as once thing, but feeling another inside.

The talent of those in their 20s and younger these past three days has been overwhelming.

Jade Bird, another British artist, undoubtably feeling at home in the cloudy weather, gave a spell-binding set. Wearing matching green corduroy pants and jacket, Bird continued with her wonderful voice, impressive range, and tender lyrics. With a folky, Joni Mitchell like feeling, the drums and beat kept the mood alive with a cool mix of acoustic and electric sounds.

Yola took to the stage next wearing a tropical print dress, as if in a Miami Club. Her voice shocked the festival with its intensity and soulfulness.

Continuing with the celebration of female artists, Sharon Van Etta was the next to blow us away. Appearing with dark hair and fishnets, her smouldering looks and darker vibe was the perfect transition to evening. Her edgier but poignant songs captivated the audience.

“I used to be 17, too,” she sang, pointing to a young girl in the crowd, and looked her straight in the eye.

Brandi Carlile started with her set with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” Yola joined her onstage after, and the two lit up the night with their powerhouse voices. The festival was packed, the palm trees lit up, and surfers gliding in the dark water beyond the fence.

Eddie Vedder / photo by Simone Goldstone

Eddie Vedder once again took to the stage, this time performing with the rest of Pearl Jam. Debuting live their new material from 2020 album Gigaton, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” and “Quick Escape” stood out as hits.

The guitars riffs were psychedelic embers, ignited the night, as fans of all ages danced and grooved to one of the original Seattle Sound icons. A two-hour set of hits and new material had established fans revelling in nostalgia and new listeners quickly turned into devotees.

Aside from the raw magic of their performance, it reminded everyone that festivals are there to carrying down the torch of Rock and Roll, from the originals to the new teenagers keeping its spirit alive.

A celebration of generations, Eddie Vedder allowed us to all be part of the Pearl Jam family these past three days. And to that, I say Maholo.

 

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