Man oh man, what a weekend it was! For it only being the second year of Pasadena’s annual two day music and arts festival, the lineup couldn’t be better put together. For the classic rock fans, Robert Plant and Neil Young were both main stage headlining artists, as were classic alternative staples Jack White and Kings of Leon. As for fans of folk music, 80s pop, blues, soul, and ska, Arroyo Seco Weekend provided a well rounded lineup, featuring it all. To walk you through my personal experience at the festival, we have to start around noon on day one. I began my journey, vegan cheeseburger in hand, with Maxim Ludwig. I caught his set because I heard he recently signed to my musical hero, Jonathan Richman’s label. Ludwig brought an eclectic set of off kilter dance rock with a jazzy overtone. He may be new on the scene but I can truly see him going places.
After his set, I worked my way over to the main stage to see Seu Jorge, the Brazilian funk and jazz artist most well known for his contributions to Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic” soundtrack. Though the heat was sweltering, the cool factor brought by him and his band were enough to shift the weather. He smoothly swiveled his way through everything from Brazilian funk standards to Roy Ayers and David Bowie covers, all sung in Portuguese. Being the jazz nerd I am, I stuck around at the main stage for another one of my jazz heroes, Kamasi Washington. I was shocked that he was slated to play so early in the day, given the fact that his last two albums have been considered modern classics by many members of the jazz community. Kamasi and his incredible band, including his father on clarinet, brought unparalleled clarity in sound and proficiency, which is so hard to do in blistering heat.
After his incredible set of five songs in an hour (that’s how you know it’s good jazz), I decided to wander around the festival for an hour or two and see what I could find before Jack White took the stage. After exploring the vast array of food trucks and merchandise tents, I made my way back to see former White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather frontman rock the fucking house. With the stage blazing in blue and white, he ran through hit after hit, from classics like “Seven Nation Army” and “My Doorbell” to selections from his last three solo records. Needless to say, this was the greatest set I saw on day one.
I eagerly dashed to the other stage the moment his set ended to catch The Specials, my favorite ska/reggae group hailing all the way from Coventry, UK. I was very disappointed that they didn’t play my all time favorite tune to shimmy and shake to, “Ghost Town,” nor did they play their incredible version of The Skatelites’ Guns of Navarone, but they delivered plenty of classics like “Rat Race” and “A Message To You Rudi.”
Suddenly, my brother and I found ourselves in the VIP section and watched Neil Young together. Sadly, Neil wasn’t as energetic as the last time I saw him, nor did he bring as diverse of a catalogue. He stuck to mostly new stuff and only played two or three classic songs in his whole two hour set, the rest majorly being extended, gritty jams from the Crazy Horse era. Personally, I’m more of a solo acoustic 70s Neil man, as I’m sure many others are. But when you have done as much for music and humanity as Neil Young has with his music and charity work, I issue a free pass to play whatever the hell you want!
Moving on to day two, I started my day with a pleasant surprise. I had never listened to this Allen Stone guy, but saw he was the slot before The Revolution so I figured I’d watch. This man brought the funk. He came out, mountain man beard and ringer tee, and I thought “Ah shit, another blues band? I’m out.” Then this dude picked up a guitar and launched into some falsetto funk that even Prince would be proud of. His glowing happiness and stage presence provoked me to get down and let loose and sing along to songs I absolutely did not know the words to. But speaking of Prince, his original backing band, The Revolution, put on an incredible set of covers that, as a die hard fan, brought a tear to my eye. I know it’s not cool to get personal when reporting on music but… I remember the day he passed away so vividly. I went home, ran to the record player, and put on every record of his I owned. For some reason Take Me With U really resonated with me that day and made me cry, so getting to experience that song in person was quite emotional. Prince truly is kept alive by his music and no one can ever take that away.
Directly following them were fellow veterans of the 80s pop scene, The Bangles. With all original members present, the girl group fronted by Suzanna Hoffs, played all of their classics, including my personal favorite ballad of the 80s, Eternal Flame. I ran around from stage to stage, getting shade wherever I could for a few hours after that as I planned out the main set I came to see, Robert Plant.
The former Led Zeppelin frontman has been trying to distance himself from the Zeppelin name for years, rebranding himself as everything from country, to blues, to middle eastern wizard rock. So I didn’t quite know what to expect. Sure enough, I was dazzled from the moment he took the stage. He was pelted by an audience member with a lemon, so he picked it up, smiled, and said “Rather fitting isn’t it?” before launching into Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song.” I was blown away at how if I closed my eyes I could swear it sounded like I was seeing Zeppelin in their heyday. The moans, the shouts, the ins and outs, everything he did vocally was spectacular. He managed to make old Zeppelin songs and traditional covers sound fresh and youthful. Most of this was due in part to his phenomenal band, The Sensational Space Shifters. There was a very authentic feeling watching him look shocked when his band mates would organically change a songs direction. There was a real dynamic between each and every member, living up to their name while shifting and working with Robert throughout each song. Along with new songs from his latest album, Carry Fire, Plant brought the “leather pants dick print” energy to wail through anthems like Whole Lotta Love and Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You. On a personal note, hearing him sing Going To California accompanied only by mandolin and acoustic guitar truly impacted me as a Zeppelin fan. His voice hasn’t aged a minute.
As he wrapped up, I knew my weekend was through. Leaving Third Eye Blind and Kings of Leon behind, I drifted home completely satisfied knowing I had just seen the greatest show in all my years of concert going.
Photo from Marquee Magazine