With gourmet food and adventurous music, Long Beach's Music Tastes Good survives after a personal tragedy

With gourmet food and adventurous music, Long Beach's Music Tastes Good survives after a personal tragedy
Fans celebrate at 2016's Music Tastes Good, which returns this weekend to downtown Long Beach. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Days ahead of showtime, talent booker Jon Halperin could watch from his Long Beach condo as tents and stages were being constructed for this weekend's Music Tastes Good festival.

While the port city's second annual confab of music and gourmet eating promises to deliver an eclectic mix of acclaimed national acts – from Ween and Sleater-Kinney to Los Lobos and Dengue Fever – the show, designed to showcase Long Beach as a vibrant music community, has become an exceptionally personal event for organizers.


A year ago, Halperin helped launch the festival with founder Josh Fischel, a local music fanatic and performer, who died unexpectedly from liver disease just days after the debut of his creation. He was 47.

"Josh came up with the festival idea," said Halperin. "He put together this dream team of all of us that live in Long Beach, and he had this vision: His idea was to have a multitude of different genres as long as they have soul, and to really mix it up."

As the weekend unfolded last year, Fischel was in his element, tall and bearded, surrounded by friends and the music he loved. "He was there giving out hugs, a smile on his face," Halperin recalled.

For year two of Music Tastes Good, the ongoing influence of Fischel on the festival he conceived and named can be seen in the lineup Saturday and Sunday in Marina Green Park.

Headlining Saturday on the main stage is the eccentric psychedelic rock act Ween, one of his favorite bands, whose name he had tattooed to his body. He personally booked British new wave act Heaven 17 well over a year ahead of time. And on Sunday, local legend Los Lobos will perform its groundbreaking and experimental album "Kiko," another of the founder's favorites.

Other notable acts on the bill this weekend include Ride, Of Montreal (performing the album "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?"), Built to Spill, Dr. Octagon, Tune-Yards, Alvvays, Peaches and more.

The original idea was to create a festival of forward-looking rock, progressive hip-hop and other genres while showing off the city and its music scene, which Fischel called home for 16 years.

Long Beach still hosts a vibrant grass-roots culture in the form of smaller venues like Alex's Bar and the Fingerprints Music store, but hasn't been the consistent tour stop it was in the decades when the Long Beach Arena presented acts from Frank Sinatra to Slayer.

Music Tastes Good was partly designed to bring some major acts back to the city yet also still possess the feel of a neighborhood-focused event. Attendance last year was around 10,000, making it a more intimate affair than many SoCal music fests, and chefs from area restaurants receive equal billing with musicians.

Before his rock band Joyce Manor's career began to take off, singer-guitarist Barry Johnson worked at Fingerprints. He lives in the neighborhood, close enough to walk from home to the stage if he chooses.

"There's a bunch of people at the coffee shop I go to, or the falafel place – 'Hey, I see your band's playing!'" said Johnson with a laugh. "It's a little more like my life is less compartmentalized. There is a community aspect to the festival that is really cool."

Johnson remembers Fischel as a regular customer at Fingerprints and avid fan of diverse sounds. Because of the festival, his band is set to perform its first Long Beach gig in nearly six years – the first since Joyce Manor found acclaim for its fiery hooks and punk/alternative sound.

Organizers learned a few lessons the first year that are being put into action this weekend, such as relocating the stages from downtown Long Beach streets to the lawn by the shore. Last year, the logistics of constructing stages on city streets with limited time meant anxious delays.

"We had people in production freaking out, 'What are we going to do!'," recalled Halperin, who came to the project with years of experience booking the Glass House in Pomona, and as a part of the Goldenvoice team behind the Coachella festival. Fischel, he remembered, faced the inevitable crises like a pro.


"He was just super-calm. He said, 'We're going to get through this,' and we did. Set times got screwed up, but people didn't care," Halperin said. "They showed up and just enjoyed the show. It was our first year trying to do something new."

From the beginning, the food was meant to be as essential as the music. And this year the "Taste Tent" will be divided between locals and chefs flown in from New Orleans.

"The food wasn't an afterthought. It was always 'music tastes good,' " Halperin said. "The chefs are sort of rock stars in their own right."

Music Tastes Good joined a growing crowd of SoCal festivals, including next month's Cal Jam, a rock 'n' roll brand name from the 1970s resurrected for a new generation by Dave Grohl and his Foo Fighters.

Louie Perez of Los Lobos remembers the big rock shows from that decade, and the fallow period for multi-act events that followed.

"The whole festival thing is having a renaissance – probably because of Coachella," said Perez, whose band is performing "Kiko" by request of Music Tastes Good. The album marked a real creative leap for the band, in the years after the platinum pop success of "La Bamba."

"It does mean a lot to me," Perez said of the album. " 'Saint Behind the Glass' is a very personal song that I wrote – about my house growing up in East L.A., the room I slept in. There's a lot of personal things going on. That was a period of time when things showed up and knocked on my door unexpectedly. Those things stay with you."

For Johnson, the festival lineup offers both pleasure and pain, after he realized Joyce Manor would be playing at virtually the same time as Ween, a band he's loved (but never seen) since his stepfather first introduced him to the band's 1994 album "Chocolate and Cheese."

"Dude, I am devastated, because I am a lifelong Ween fan," said Johnson, who jokingly added, "We're going to play our songs double-speed and then I'm going to throw my guitar down and sprint over to catch the last little bit of Ween."

Knowing that Ween was booked less for financial consideration than as a tribute to the festival founder who loved the band as much as he does will make a difference in the experience of being there.

"That's a very Long Beach thing," said Johnson. "It's not 'Who is the biggest band selling tickets that we can get?' It actually has meaning to get Ween. It makes me happy for Long Beach that it has something like this."

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Music Tastes Good featuring Los Lobos, Sleater-Kinney, Ride, Ween and more


When: Sept. 30 – Oct. 1; gates open at 11 a.m.

Where: Marina Green Park in downtown Long Beach

Tickets: Single day tickets start at $75; weekend passes start at $135