It’s not difficult to figure out the reasoning behind Arroyo Seco Weekend. The last five years have seen Goldenvoice’s festival crown jewel, Coachella, shift its focus away from being a serious music fan’s desert oasis and toward embracing its youth and celebrity culture. Many of its other events, from the hip-hop heavy-hitter Camp Flog Gnaw to the twentysomething hipster haven FYF to the recent NYC expansion Panorama, also know what they are and find themselves speaking to more specific audiences than ever. Sure, it’s possible to see the Coachella fan also attending FYF or one of their many other properties, but the promoting giant has allowed each of their fests to carve out their own niche and, conceivably, sustain on their own demographic.
And so we have Arroyo Seco Weekend, a two-day festival set on a golf course in the Los Angeles burb of Pasadena. Its concept is to nab the Angelenos that have grown out of Chella and FYF and book the bands that have also matured beyond what would draw fans on the polo fields. It’s This Is 40: The Festival. Despite a cost of admission on par with the other Southern California music festivals, the event oozed with the concept of disposable money, where $37 pork ribs and $150 dollar picnic baskets were served to music fans who wouldn’t scoff at dropping cash like that for a quick festival bite. You’re still as likely to see shirtless bros as you are at its Indio cousin, only here they are covered in back hair, pushing a stroller with one hand and holding a craft beer in the other. Instead of donning expensive, single-use outfits, people brought expensive, single-use blankets to lord over unnecessary expanses of space, cursing and threatening if anyone dared to step too close to their territory. If this is what the worst of the stereotypical Coachella goer turns into, they’ve become even been bigger monsters than their younger selves.
This, of course, isn’t the festival’s fault. There is rarely ever the feeling at a music festival that the event should cater to your needs. That’s the whole deal. Music festivals are these collective experiences where music fans have to bend their comfort level for the greater community. There’s no “I” in fest. You might miss one of the bands you want to see because of a scheduling conflict. You might have to drink Pepsi instead of Coke (we literally saw one vender berated because of this). You might have to adjust your definition of personal space. Music festivals are all about sacrifices, and in turn you get a one-of-a-kind experience. But maybe, at a certain age and in a certain income bracket, people search less for experiences and more for products. And when fans feel like they are buying a product with their admission, it turns into a big orgy of entitlement without the luxury of a return policy.
But Arroyo Seco Weekend couldn’t possibly have known what its audience would be like (and, to be fair, the second day was largely improved, with the biggest issues seeming to stem from the Tom Petty contingent). What Goldenvoice does know is how to run a festival. For a first-year event, so many aspects were remarkably smooth. It was easy (and free!) to park, lines to get into the event were smooth and quick, food choices represented some of the best of local cuisine while keeping wait times relatively low, and the ability to carry your booze everywhere you walked rectified one of the biggest complaints about FYF and Coachella. In more general terms, the grounds were lush and green, views of the foothills and mountains were clear and vibrant, and though the days were hot, there was plenty of opportunity to retreat from the heat.
On the other hand, the biggest logistical issues also seemed to be built into the setting. Both of its main stages were placed in too narrow of corridors with trees impeding some sightlines. They often felt too quiet, as well, likely a result of its location near so many private residences. The half of the footprint reserved for music just lacked for space, though organizers did manage to repair foot-traffic flow issues by the second day. Dividing the music and much of the food was the actual Arroyo Seco, a seasonal river that lived up to its Spanish name that means “dry stream.” It felt like the dining aspect of the festival might not have received as much attention as it deserved because of this separation, with fans more content to hold onto their stake of land for the duration of the show. And the parking lot, though a breeze to get into, turned treacherous by night, lacking for clearly marked exit strategies or lighting to avoid its worrisome ditches and fencing. These are all relatively minor first-year fest growing pains, sure, but ones that can hopefully be addressed should the event return.
And then there was the music. Even though a band like Alabama Shakes are only two years removed from playing Coachella and bands like Weezer, The Shins, and even Mumford and Sons still find themselves often on national and international lineups, there was an aspect of Arroyo Seco Weekend that felt like a refreshing throwback. A couple years ago, we saw Broken Social Scene play a rare show at Pemberton, and only a few hundred people bothered to check it out. At Arroyo Seco Weekend, a band like BSS got the audience it deserved. Weezer sported Guns N’ Roses costumes to give the hometown crowd a sense that this was a special gig. A performer like Andrew Bird could deliver a hits set to an audience that actually know said hits. More than even being a nice treat for the fans, Arroyo Seco Weekend felt like a worthy gig for artists who’ve been marginalized by the changing music landscape and largely traded in by fests in search of the new, shiny toy that all the other kids got for Christmas.
Instead of an EDM tent, Arroyo Seco Weekend offered up a jazz tent on Saturday, including a packed appearance by Jeff Goldblum that mixed in tunes with exuberant rounds of Goldblum trivia. “I’m having the best time right now,” he proclaimed literally two minutes into his set, and his beaming grin backed up the sentiment. Hip-hop wasn’t on the menu, but there was plenty of soul when Charles Bradley hit the stage, as the singer fought back emotions to speak about his recent bout with cancer and to proclaim himself the victor in that battle. And while the weekend didn’t put any pop stars on the stage, Tom Petty did one better, not relying on the familiarity of contemporary radio and instead delivering a group of songs that are deeply ingrained in the consciousness of generations. Walking through the audience and witnessing the sing-alongs, Petty proved to be an artist that truly spanned generations. It was as much a moment to share with your family as it was to share with friends, and that seems to be the heart of what Arroyo Seco Weekend wants to be. That’s something that few music festivals can claim. As a generation that grew up going to music festivals has their own children, this idea makes sense. Leave it to bougie folks from LA to ruin a good thing.