Every major music festival can be distilled down to a singular item that best represents it. For Coachella, it’s the infamous flower headband, made iconic by Instagram celebs and tweens. Outside Lands, by comparison, is known for its flannel and its hipster vibe. The first annual Arroyo Seco, taking place at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, can best be represented by the most common item seen throughout its first day: the backpack chair.
Upon walking into the festival, hoards of backpack chairs could be seen moving towards one of the three stages — Willow, Sycamore or Oak. But, shortly after the sun hit its zenith, every chair found a home. And though many or most were unattended, chairs and blankets alike littered the grassy areas in front of each stage. Whether by design or accident, Arroyo Seco became a camping festival.
During Jade Jackson’s set, taking place at Oak (better known as the main stage), the effect of the chairs was less evident. Ms. Jackson and crew played an enjoyable set in the Pasadena heat for which most of the attendees remained seated, sipping on a cold beverage. A handful of festival-goers congregated towards the front, but the majority simply sat and soaked up the sun. Fun fact about Arroyo Seco, folks: you can drink wherever the hell you want and don’t need to remain inside any designated Beer Garden.
Up next, Minnesota indie band Haley played a similar tune. Attendees bopped their heads back and forth as they lay on towels in the shadier spots by the Sycamore stage, enjoying a spot of sun. The crowd seemed content with a seated festival, and the band didn’t seem to mind it either.
From there, things began to pick up when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band took the stage. Back at the Oak stage, the Jazz Band jumped right into a particularly groovy set that echoed all the way to Sycamore. Arroyo set itself up as a manageable festival with the two main stages (Oak and Sycamore) lying opposite of another and the smaller tent (Willow) off in an area dominated by food and drink. For fans in attendance at 2:50pm, Preservation Hall put on a show to remember. Each member of the band was an expert of his respective instrument, but nobody cruised along quite like the trombone player, Freddie Lonzo. He had that spark of life that his bandmates, while skilled, did not possess. And every time he stepped up for a solo or let his trombone scream, the crowd responded with admiration and raucous applause. Even those in the back, seated in chairs, showed some love.
Next were John Mayall and his accompanying drummer and bassist. Situated at Sycamore, the crowd congregated around the cool, shaded areas leaving the front of the stage relatively thin, but Mayall and crew paid no mind. They jammed their hearts out, shredding on drum, bass and harmonica, respectively. Mayall gave us all a taste of some sweet New Orleans Gumbo, as he put it, and not a soul could complain.
The next artist of the day was a curious one. Jeff Goldblum, of Jurassic Park and Independence Day fame, played alongside the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. Goldblum has a penchant for entertaining, and he showed off his gift by playing a roaring game of “6 Degrees of Jeff Goldblum,” asking the crowd for actors or movie titles so he could tie them back to himself. Only Jeff Goldblum could pull something off like this, and do so in a way that felt genuine and enjoyable. Suffice to say, hardly anyone was sitting in or outside the Willow tent for this one. As the rest of the band came to play some upbeat jazz and funk, Mr. Goldblum took hold of the keys and played along.
After Goldblum and the gang had done their thing, it was time for Broken Social Scene at Sycamore. The multi-piece band started with leading man Kevin Drew and five other bandmates (four of which were on strings) before evolving, one song later, into a 13-piece band complete with three female vocalists and a full brass section — including three trumpets, one sax and one trombone. As their set wore on, members of the collective – which included Emily Haines of Metric, Amy Millan of Stars and Lisa Lobsinger – came and went, picking up instruments or taking control of the lead vocals when the particular song called for it. The crowd seemed elated at the dynamic performance Broken Social Scene put on, with many members of the audience dancing, whether up close or further away from the stage.
After grooving along to Broken Social Scene, the next stop was Dawes, situated at Oak. The main stage can be a harsh mistress, especially around dinner time, as most of the attendees looked in need of a cold brew instead of a cold beer. Though the crowd was equal to some of the prior acts, most looked uninterested and very hungry.
On the opposite side of the park, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires packed just the right amount of funk to get their fans over the evening hump. Though plenty of people were sitting when Bradley walked up on stage in his all black jumpsuit and silver sequined high heels, the moment he starting singing, dancing and screaming like James Brown, seats were left vacant. It’s hard not to groove when the funk is that tasty and the leading man is so charismatic. The heat seemed irrelevant to Bradley’s fans; they were too busy getting down and having fun to notice the heat or their hunger.
After some much-needed refueling, fans made their way to Alabama Shakes to watch the blues rock band rip the main stage to pieces. The crowds came in thick, making it nearly impossible to get close to the stage (and equally impossible when trying to leave in the middle of the set, god forbid). The Shakes played their hearts out, getting nearly everyone within striking distance to get up and get grooving. Old and young came together to enjoy the tunes from the Alabama band. Whether a diehard or a newcomer, there was something for everyone as Alabama Shakes played the most accessible set of the evening.
Unfortunately, The Meters held a set time a few minutes later than Alabama Shakes and at the opposite side of the festival. Though the crowd was small, it was quality that prevailed in this instance. The crowd size was similar to that of the earlier opening sets, but the energy was fierce. The Meters put on a killer funk set, complete with heavy solos and a few easy-to-sing-along-with songs that got their fans moving. The true Meters fans came out and were dancing and hollering from start to finish. To quote drummer Ziggy Modeliste, “The heat is going down and the funk is going up.” Indeed, it was. With the sun beginning to sink below the surrounding mountains, the temperature was starting to cool but this funk band was just beginning to heat up.
From there, it was only the headliner, the main act, the big draw that remained: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. To no surprise, Tom and the gang drew quite the crowd, filling the main stage and surrounding VIP area with what seemed like every available body in the festival. Nary a backpack chair insight, the crowd was on its feet and ready for its star. With an impressive two-hour set, Petty and the gang ran through many of their most famous hits: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance, “ “Roll Another Joint,” “Won’t Back Down” and “Free Falling.” For every one of these classics, the crowd sang along, dancing and clapping as Petty sang his heart out, sounding incredible — even towards the end of his 120-minute set.
Petty and the Heartbreakers played some songs off of their latest album, Hypnotic Eye, like “Forgotten Man,” and even dusted off a song for the first time on this tour with “Into the Great Wide Open.” At every remark, every song, every solo, the crowd responded with love. By the end of the night, it had thinned out a little, with some looking to beat the traffic, but the majority remained, staying loyal to their champion. After running through a few songs off of Wildflowers, Petty and the crew ended things with “Running Down a Dream,” which the crowd seemed to enjoy as a closer.
However, the night wasn’t over yet. After four minutes of cheering, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers returned once more for two encore tracks. The first, “You Wreck Me,” got love from the crowd, but it was the final song that everyone had waited for: “American Girl.” All of a sudden, legs that held for two hours of rock gained new life. A second wind swept across the crowd, infusing attendees with vigor, allowing them to dance and sing and party along with Petty.
It was a successful first day of the new festival, each band played on time and, aside from a few minor sound issues in the beginning, all went smoothly. Rose Bowl is well-versed in the logistics of big crowds and handled the day with grace. If day two is anything like the first, Arroyo Seco attendees are in for a treat.
For Day Two photos and a review head here.
All Photos by Brett Padelford