California music festivals tend to follow in the same grooves year after year: Coachella embodies L.A. hippie chic, Outside Lands has Bay Area quirk, High Sierra the laid-back microbrew crowd, and Woodsist the kids smoking pot in the woods. Last weekend brought Monterey's First City Festival, the very definition of California casual. Now in its second year, the festival didn't have a huge attendance — Beck and The National were its biggest headliners, two bands that have been headliners on the festival circuit for years — but it was definitely the mellowest festival I've ever attended.
A large part of this was due to its location on the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the site of the renowned Monterey Jazz Festival as well as 1967's legendary Monterey Pop, one of the first modern-day music festivals where Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and The Who played, among others. Historical cache inside, the fairground's lush grounds are just a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, and the lack of crowds meant that getting from stage to stage and obtaining food and beer were never a problem. Would that all music festivals were this laid-back.
The L.A.-based rockers were a great Saturday late-afternoon choice: Their Southern California surf-pop set was as good of an energy jolt as a cup of coffee. A great cheer came up from the crowd when they played their California-love hit, “The Only Place.” “This is a song about California,” said lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Bethany Cosentino, and as you hummed along it was easy to think that here, in this beautiful weather, in these storied fairgrounds dappled with coastal oaks and ponds, that you'd found it: the California Dream. Cosentino seemed to feel the same tug. “I just felt an energy playing that song that I’ve never felt before,” she said. “It’s such a California thing. I’m glad we got to experience that together.”
Puddles Pity Party
With his pale face paint, an oversized white costume, comically tiny crown, and tattered suitcase, Puddles the Clown is the kind of self-deprecating circus performer we’re all used to: sad, world-weary, over it. But there’s something endearingly earnest about him too – especially when he begins to sing. Puddles played a brief set consisting of a wholehearted cover of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” that segued into Metallica, and then his fabulous cover of Lourde's “Royals.” During the show, he vacillated between mics, interacted with the audience, emoted like crazy. And then he was gone, and we were all left wondering what the hell had just happened, as is Puddles' wont.
On Carnival Rides at Festivals
The Monterey County Fair opens Wednesday, but the carnival set up early for First City, and all rides were free with admission. The funhouses were lame, but the chance to get high above it all on the Ferris wheel and look out toward the ocean, or take out some aggro on the bumper cars, was not to be missed. (There were also bigger, scarier rides, but given the corn dogs and beer we'd imbibed and our general mistrust of traveling carnivals, these didn't seem like the smartest choice.) The best offering, though, was the merry-go-round next to the Cypress stage. It was magic to sit on an elaborately painted horse or winged dragon, slowly moving in circles to the beat of the band onstage. Every festival should come equipped with merry-go-rounds.
Half of electronic rock duo Phantogram, Sarah Barthel, made for a striking figure on stage dressed in stilettos and shorts, moving her whole body along with the beat as hard-rocking guitarist Josh Carter seemingly intentionally faded into the background. But together the New York-based duo delivered a high-energy set of the synth-pop sounds they're known for, and the crowd showed up to see the show — they appeared to draw one of the biggest groups of the day, second only to Beck.
Clad in a cowboy hat, leather jacket, and boots, Beck’s show closing out Saturday night started strong with no-holds-barred renditions of “Devil’s Haircut,” “Black Tambourine,” “Loser, “Novacaine,” and “Hell Yes” in quick succession. The lithe 44-year-old is still moonwalking and pop-and-locking, albeit less than he did 15 years ago, but still with enough verve and agility to please the crowd. Though people streamed out during a lull of slow songs from his brooding new album, Morning Phase – Beck’s gotta be the most bipolar indie rocker out there – he’d promised to “get back to the business” after his new tunes, and he delivered. Beck closed out the show with a dirty guitar-heavy version of “E-Pro,” and then came back for an encore complete with “Get Real Paid” (which he dedicated to “the boys in the bulletproof vests”), “Sexx Laws,” and “Where It’s At.”