Music festivals can be for the masses. “Can” is the operative word here because often fests don’t feel that way. It’s not a bad thing that many festivals consider their audience by demographic, genre, or income bracket. You can look at the lineup of FYF Fest and know that they are catering to a particularly music-savvy brand of Angeleno or know by reputation that Ultra is geared toward dance music superfans or even understand that a festival like Lollapalooza has primarily become a summer vacation experience for Chicago teenagers. All of these events know their audiences and cater the experience to make those people happy above all others.
But just as often, music fans are surely alienated by music festivals that they feel do not aim to include them. The last several years have seen fests receive criticism for the homogeneity of lineups, and aside for the obvious drawback of boring avid festivalgoers, this also serves to exclude music fans who aren’t drawn to the latest trends and rising artists. There is a massive music fan base that isn’t concerned with Father John Misty and only know Migos because of “Bad and Boujee”, and these are often the ones who actually buy albums, pay for downloads of songs, and keep acts like Hall & Oates or Eric Clapton playing to arena-sized crowds. Some would call these people out of touch with the music scene, but what KAABOO Del Mar suggests is that maybe it’s the glut of music festivals that are out of touch with the typical music fan.
In its third year, KAABOO Del Mar has thrown away the playbook that other fests use to find success. Of course, there are some analogs — you can’t put up a bunch of stages and throw an event without borrowing from those who’ve come before — but the San Diego festival manages to put a unique spin on what a festival can be in a time when few are attempting to do that. It starts with the lineup, which this year was headlined by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Muse, Pink, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Except for Pink, all of those acts are headlining other major North American fests this year, but all also appear next to younger brethren, be it Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire, or The xx. Usually, when those acts appear at a festival, they are there to provide a bit of legacy to an fest that sorely needs it. At KAABOO Del Mar, legacy is the name of the game.
We’ve already highlighted how ’90s-centric many of the acts booked are, ranging from a rare festival set from Alanis Morissette to artists like The Wallflowers, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Live, and Garbage. But elsewhere, KAABOO Del Mar managed to sample from a wider history of pop music. There were artists like Jackson Browne and Michael McDonald who appealed most to the older music fans of San Diego while some of the more recent fans had artists like Kesha, Logic, and Jason Derulo to chew on. And then there were artists like Weezer and Ice Cube who transcended a particular time and place. But the one thing that they all had in common was that they weren’t esoteric in the slightest. All had found their way into the mainstream consciousness, where even the most casual music fan could walk around and hear songs that they loved.
KAABOO Del Mar also takes the task of being more than just a music festival more seriously than a lot of its peers. Its comedy presentation at Humor Me was perpetually packed, with an in-door and air-conditioned venue accommodating thousands of fans to see people like David Spade, Patton Oswalt, Arsenio Hall, and Norm Macdonald. The culinary presentation also didn’t skimp, featuring a wealth of talent from television shows like Top Chef and Master Chef. Food samples from local culinary institutions to chains like Sweetfin and Chipotle to festival mainstays Spicy Pie, while booze is both plentiful and available to carry with you at all areas of the festival. And if you wanted a break from curated entertainment, there is an arcade, giant live-art creation, a museum, flower crown making, henna tattoos, a dance club, a silent disco, a sandy faux-beach lounge, a beer garden, food trucks, shopping, B-12 vitamin IVs, spa services, a barber shop, and more branded installations than previously thought conceivable. It was like KAABOO Del Mar had taken the highlights from every other festival and crammed them into the scenic and historic Del Mar fairgrounds. If it wasn’t for the fest’s relaxed vibe, it might feel like too much. But in the hands of KAABOO, it all worked toward crowd-pleasing. Bigger is better in these parts.
The inclusiveness also rubbed off on the artists. On Friday afternoon, Kesha performed one of her first festivals since releasing the most acclaimed album of her career in last month’s Rainbow. Early parts of the show were as irreverent and racy as ever as she paraded a stream of beloved oldies, but later she conjured up one of the emotional highs of the festival. Her cover of Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” spoke directly to her conflict with songwriter Dr. Luke, with the singer happy to take the role of inspiration for the audience. Later, when her delivery of “Praying” didn’t meet her own high vocal standards, she fought back the tears telling the audience how much their support has meant to her during the last few nightmare years and how badly she wanted to deliver a performance that was worthy of such loyalty. In reality, Kesha’s perseverance means so much to so many people that simply the act of taking the stage seems like a small miracle.
Endurance proved to be a common theme at the event. Tom Petty’s current tour is celebrating his band’s 40th anniversary, and by parading hits ranging from “American Girl” to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” only underscores what longevity looks like. The songs of Tom Petty were as much a unifier as anything, something teenage fans could share with grandparents, really feeding into the family atmosphere that was present at the festival. Sure, Ice Cube might be rapping “fuck the police” at some point and Jason Derulo may have some booty-shaking dancers onstage, but with a little bit of forethought, parents who brought their young kids to the festival were greeted with an event that often felt wholesome.
But maybe it was Garbage’s Shirley Manson that hit the nail best on the head when she gave a speech about her band’s experience in the music industry. She noted that the radio and pop music sphere isn’t kind to weirder artists like her, people that refuse to play the game as it has been dictated. She went on to thank KAABOO Del Mar for giving her old band a place to play, to take a chance on something that isn’t the newest flavor of the week. And she was right. KAABOO’s gamble that fans would flock to hear Alanis Morissette sandblast her way thought beloved tracks like “You Oughta Know” and lesser hits like “Uninvited” paid off. Their assumption that Red Hot Chili Peppers would draw out all the diehards in their RHCP t-shirts was correct. Their foresight that putting Pink and Muse on at opposite ends of the festival would successfully split the audience was on point. Their idea to book Shaquille O’Neal for a DJ set that began with a tribute to Linkin Park and went on to feature “white-boy classics” proved to be genius. KAABOO didn’t just leap over their own hurdles; they made it seem like they were reinventing the race as they went.
And that’s ultimately the thought that kept coming to mind over the weekend at KAABOO Del Mar. There’s that saying that when you try to please everyone, you wind up pleasing no one. But it’s like KAABOO took that as a challenge. And maybe it isn’t really a festival for everyone, but just a festival for everyone else. In a world where there are plenty of opportunities to see Mitski or Car Seat Headrest or Majid Jordan or LCD Soundsystem at fests, KAABOO Del Mar set up a show for people that aren’t interested in that world. It’s a much bigger audience than we often give credit for, and one that is both willing and deserving to join the festival-going public.
Photographer: Philip Cosores