If you go by the calendar, summer doesn’t begin until June 20th, but many Americans signify its beginning by other timestamps, like Memorial Day Weekend or the last day of school. In Southern California, for the past 25 years, rock and roll fans have been able to go by another marker to ring in the warmest of the seasons: the KROQ Weenie Roast y Fiesta. Sure, it’s a big summer concert festival akin to what other radio stations do across formats, but the Weenie Roast is something different for locals. It’s an institution that has seen multiple generations walk through its turnstiles, that has watched its artists grow and succeed on the biggest scales, and has served as a barometer for rock’s health (or lack there of).
One big story with the 2017 edition was a move from the recently demolished Irvine Meadows to the Stubhub Center in Carson. Home of the LA Galaxy soccer team and future temporary home of the LA Chargers, the location turned the Weenie Roast into a mini stadium show, with plenty of promenade space for activities, vendors, and atmosphere. Yes, the 90-degree heat didn’t bolster the first incarnation of the Weenie Roast in Carson, but that’s hardly the venue or the city’s fault. It was just bad luck. In fact, Carson does provide a bit more of a central location that isn’t to far from either Los Angeles proper or Orange County, and wouldn’t be a bad place to take up a more permanent residence for the festival.
And with the location issue solved, the other task at hand for LA radio giant KROQ was the entertainment. Now, we’ve been critical in the past about Weenie Roast lineups. Compared to its sibling, the two-day December event KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, the Weenie Roast tends to skew a little more aggressive and younger in its demo, meaning past booking wins of Florence and the Machine, Beck, or Death Cab for Cutie are balanced by SoCal punky vibes from The Offspring and Pennywise or cheeseball pairings with Panic! at the Disco, Fitz and the Tantrums, AWOLNATION, Capital Cities, and Lukas Graham; essentially some of the worst in contemporary music.
But 2017 was a bit different. Sure, there were still some lows on the bill. New Politics remains a band that the radio station is committed to despite all signs pointing to the fact that literally no one is buying in. Judah and the Lion is as innocuous as anything, proving every season needs its Strumbellas or its Vance Joy or its Temper Trap or whatever other band will be forgotten onces its song’s cycle is through. And, sadly, DREAMCAR, which packs star power in its AFI/No Doubt mashup, but is light on songs and makes fans wish for either of the main acts to perform rather than this mediocre side-project.
But otherwise, the KROQ Weenie Roast was remarkably strong in both its bill and its execution. Alternative radio (and, likewise, the festivals put on by the stations of the genre) has long been light on women. When Lorde topped the alternative charts in 2013 for “Royals”, she was the first solo woman to do so in 17 years. Now, with her sophomore album a month out, she is able to serve as headliner for the event. Sure, her performance was hampered by technical difficulties that forced her to showcase her weakest skill (stage banter), but her music and her performance ability are undeniable. Even a track like “Ribs”, which didn’t have the instant radio-approved recognizability for casual fans was bolstered by the songwriter’s salesmanship. In short, the role as marquee act is one that Lorde is ready for.
And the same could be said of the other couple of ladies on the bill. Lana Del Rey, who is already headlining festivals in her own right, doesn’t quite have the same resume in the alternative world. But even performing before the lights went down, it was clear that no other artist had as many dedicated fans there just for them as Lana. Teens in the front shed tears, handed her gifts and flowers, and generally lost their shit as the singer debuted a new song (“Cherry”) and offered up a selection of to-be-released material and oldies. To her credit, Del Rey has taken the last couple years to come into her own as a singer, which is key as her whole performance style is coy and reserved. Even as “Cherry” incorporated the slightest choreography, it was presented with a breezy coolness that bolstered the music. The initiated fans ate up every last drop.
Paramore, a band that has been around this block a couple of times, turned in one of the best sets of the day. They knew the score and the purpose for being there, opening and closing with their latest single, “Hard Times”. And in between, frontperson Haley Williams cemented her status as one of the best in her field, bringing up a fan for an ultimate Paramore experience to duet “Misery Business”, while relishing the opportunity to captivate on beloved tunes “That’s What You Get” and “Ain’t It Fun”. Along with Lana and Lorde, all three of the women that graced the main stage delve into the pop world as well as the alt one, but for an event that tends to skew on either crunchy guitars or lightweight fun, this represented a welcome change of pace.
That didn’t mean that there weren’t some unabashed rock moments. In another highlight set, Cage the Elephant went all in on their retro rock tropes, with frontman Matt Shultz selling his band’s parade of hits with relentless showmanship. It could be too much of a good thing if Cage didn’t pack as many bona fide tunes as they do. In fact, few (if any) acts to emerge in rock this last decade have seen as many songs rise on the alt charts as Cage, and with their skill at packing an uppercut of a live show, it’s still baffling that they aren’t more popular. And as the group soared 10 minutes past their scheduled end time, with Shultz diving into the crowd to finish “Teeth” raised upon their hands, there wasn’t anyone bummed for some bonus time with the band.
Shultz wasn’t done there, either. He popped up again during Incubus‘ set to sing “Black Hole Sun” with Brandon Boyd to honor Chris Cornell, a move that felt deeply appropriate. Boyd spoke at length about what Cornell and his music meant to him, but Cornell had also made such an impact on KROQ and alternative music as a whole, that it felt deeply necessary to honor that.
It’s easy to think of KROQ as just a radio station and as the Weenie Roast as just a concert, but it didn’t take more than looking into the eyes of Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds getting emotional as he described the first time hearing his band’s song on the radio to know that these institutions mean a lot more than all that. KROQ and its concerts help form relationships and memories between artists, their music, and the fans. And over 25 years, the impact that this concert has had can’t be downplayed. Attendees have watched bands like Imagine Dragons or Twenty One Pilots or The 1975 can go from playing the second stage at two in the afternoon to headlining arenas. On Saturday, it was an event that kicked off album cycles, debuted new material, and even provided a space to process grief. That sounds like a pretty successful concert by all measures. And it kicked off the summer, too.