What makes a good Southern California music festival? Quality acts, artfully selected, with pleasant surprises and an overarching vision. Easy access to essentials for enjoying — not just surviving — the daylong adventures. Accessible good food, well-plotted facilities near (but not too near) the action, thoughtfully organized vendors, cheap water and, if so inclined on a hot Labor Day weekend in downtown Los Angeles, readily gluggable beer.
Those answers were in limited supply during the West Coast debut of the Made in America music festival, which consumed three stages and half a dozen blocks in and around Grand Park on Saturday and Sunday. Hot, cloudless days left a lot of attendees sunburnt and made the Cali breeze that drifted in at sundown feel extra special. The event packed the park, which for a time stretched the festival's infrastructure to near breaking point.
Heavy on big-picture planning, promoters seemed less devoted to detail and navigational ease. As a result, the first year succeeded as a musical event because of the many troopers in the crowd willing to endure lines, heat, drought-beaten dirt and poorly situated facilities, all for the love of music.
Building on the success of the East Coast version of Made in America, born in Philadelphia in 2012, the L.A. lineup featured a batch of hitmakers including Kanye West, Imagine Dragons, John Mayer, L.A.'s thriving Top Dawg Entertainment roster (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and others), Australian "Fancy" rapper Iggy Azalea and early Sunday tag-team victories by vocalists SZA and, one stage over, captivating London singer Rita Ora.
By the end of the weekend, Azalea had made a valid argument against her doubters, and Top Dawg had confirmed its place as king of Los Angeles hip-hop with incendiary, confident sets from Schoolboy Q and Lamar. Colombian rock singer Juanes also guided his huge fan base through "A Dios le Pido."
Onstage, F-bombs flew like water balloons, echoing through downtown from the first tracks hip-hop producer Hit-Boy dropped. The hardened, frantic tracks delivered Saturday by DJ Mustard, first at the festival's skate ramp and a few hours later with YG, perfectly locked with the energy. Setting hot revelers ablaze above Mustard's sibilant, minimal beats, YG offered a lesson in the cuss word's versatility. (That said, as much cursing goes on during an average day at City Hall behind him.)
The Canadian rock band Metric sent a reminder of what solid, magnetic songs — and lead singers — can accomplish. Dr. Dog presented bounce-along beard rock. As Saturday fell and the festival peaked, lines eased and Afrojack pumped four-on-the-floor stompers to a crowd of bouncing devotees.
Saturday's most anticipated and best music was presented by the artists on rap label Top Dawg Entertainment. The lineup, which also featured rappers Jay Rock and Isaiah Rashad, ripped highlights from throughout the label's remarkable ascent.
On Sunday afternoon, Rashad and Ab-Soul cameoed with rising Top Dawg-affiliated R&B singer SZA. She's a natural, with a striking stage presence and a way with phrasing. She also tossed out my favorite bit of banter, even if it contained an unprintable cuss word, when she said casually, "I'm just out here in the .... sunshine."
Schoolboy Q, presenting tracks from his excellent new album, "Oxymoron," owned his stage Saturday. Confident from a long round of touring, he's a natural storyteller whose very presence on the mike commands attention. During "Man of the Year," much of the fest chanted his lyrical observation: "I see hands in the crowds / See whites, blacks blazing a pound, jumping around."
It was true. Those not drinking beer were blazing (and vaping) lots of marijuana — especially during Sublime With Rome's set.
Lamar, who is working on the follow-up to "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City," looked particularly at home on the jumbo screen at the foot of City Hall. A superb L.A. chronicler, the Compton-born lyricist gave portraits from South Los Angeles that bounced off LAPD's headquarters a block away like bricks against riot shields.
Still, logistical issues — fundamental stuff — made for a tough go of it. Promoters smartly staggered the sets so that when one act ended, the next began, resulting in regular dashes from one stage to another. The problem? Impeding the flow and causing a bottleneck was the ultra-VIP area, where promoters, talent agents and (presumably) beer barons of festival backer Budweiser were enjoying the sponsored elixir. It was hard to navigate, so people just trod through the surrounding gardens.
On one stage, half the crowd's view was hindered by a few big trees. More frustrating, fans watching from farther back, beyond the soundboard, could have had decent views were it not for the gigantic camera crane maneuvering back and forth. As it swung left and right to feed the online simulcast, it annoyed thousands.
Another stage was housed on hard, gravelly dirt that made picnicking with food truck fare uncomfortable, especially for the ladies in fashionably skimpy shorts. (Many sat on curbs or stair steps to eat.)
By Sunday evening, many issues had been resolved, and fans were able to let loose. As the heat subsided, Santa Monica's finest, Weezer, delivered its scream-along rock anthems about love and sweaters, and teased work from its new album, "Everything Will Be Alright." A stage over, Chicago's next great hope, Chance the Rapper, drew an outsized, devoted fan base. As his live band, replete with trumpet, did songs from his 2013 mixtape "Acid Rap," Chance showcased his jukin' skills on the dance floor. (Mayer, Steve Aoki and West were scheduled to perform after press time.)
Was the well-financed Made in America, produced by Live Nation, a good music festival? Not when compared to standard-bearers like Coachella, FYF, Bonnaroo and Electric Daisy Carnival, all of which were born small and grew. Just as the Belgian-owned Anheuser Busch-InBev "king of beers" is combating an insurgent craft brewing movement gulping market share, Made in America is competing with other festivals born much more organically. Through perseverance, trial and error and a focused musical mission, these other events have become destination festivals.
In comparison, Made in America felt like a branding opportunity — that also happened to feature some of today's biggest bands.