Review: Grimes, Grouplove and more at Make Music Pasadena

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“Put your guns up,” singer Ashleigh Allard hollered at unsuspecting pedestrians making their way to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf just off Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard on Saturday.

Her rock band, HOTT MT, is relatively young on the L.A. scene, so to grab attention at the Make Music Pasadena festival Saturday, she lured curious onlookers to stop and watch with the promise of free water pistols.

For bands such as Allard’s, the day-long music event, which took place largely around Old Town’s Colorado Boulevard and the Playhouse District’s Madison Avenue, was a rare opportunity to reach potential fans at a festival that has become one of the region’s more unique ways to showcase local music.

After passing out the water guns, she invited those who’d gathered around her tiny stage in a shopping alleyway to take their best shot as she skipped, hollered and sang to rough, groove-based rock ‘n’ roll. Finally, revelers at nearby Lucky Baldwins put down their pints to come have a look at the musical goofiness going down just beyond the pub’s patio. Allard’s ploy had worked.


Now in its fifth year, the Pasadena festival celebrates music at its most quirky, casual and community-focused. It’s grown from an event that largely featured intimate, acoustic appearances in storefronts to one that can now draw artists with national appeal. This year, it ran from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and its main stages, of which there were five, were generally about a 15-minute walk apart.

Boasting 149 performances on pop-up stages, Make Music Pasadena is a large-scale event done on a budget. Ninety-nine percent of the artists appearing do not get paid, say organizers; headliners such as electronic artist Grimes and peppy local rockers Grouplove were expected Saturday to bring at least 20,000 people to downtown Pasadena.

With a budget of less than $200,000, according to co-organizers Josefina Mora, 31, and Kershona Mayo, 30 (both employed by Pasadena business improvement districts), Make Music Pasadena is a break-even proposition that relies on sponsors and the goodwill of local artists.

Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, drew a large enough crowd around her stage on the corner of Colorado and Madison to make local law enforcement nervous. The fast-rising artist sold out the Echo earlier this year and will be back at the El Rey in October.

A temporary fence that had been erected as a photo pit separated Grimes from the audience, though the crowd kept pushing it closer to the stage throughout her set. One overly energetic fan did jump onstage, and Grimes laughed as the male fan danced nearby, even breaking song to tell security, “He can stay,” as he was pulled back into the crowd.

Just one year ago, when Grimes was still struggling for recognition, her soft vocals would disappear into one of the numerous moody layers in her music. On Saturday, her voice fluttered to the front of the mix, like an incandescent light beaming out of the shadows. She turned drum line marches into dance moves and sang, “I close my eyes until I see,” on “Be a Body,” as the music ricocheted around the parking garage next door.

About midway through the set, she warned the crowd that the police were threatening to shut down the show if the fence inched any closer to the stage, and she looked surprised when she was told she had performed her last song. “Do I have time for one more?” she asked hopefully, but the dance party wasn’t going to extend past 6 p.m.; Mora later said the set was curtailed due to “safety concerns.”

Much of the diverse crowd dispersed to Colorado Boulevard, where Grouplove, the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of a pep rally, was showing why it has become one of L.A.'s more popular rock exports. The band dishes out crowd-pleasing pop at its most relentless. Singers Christian Zucconi and Hannah Hooper are effective cheerleaders, and the band cribs from the best, as its “Chloe” is more or less a rewrite of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.”

Make Music Pasadena leaned heavily on local indie rock. Notable highlights included the jangly yet forlorn melodies of Pageants and the violin-adorned harmonies of Torches, both of which packed the tiny Old Towne Pub. The latter’s uplifting dreamy textures were perhaps the day’s biggest surprise.

Like Grimes, Dam Funk found himself begging for extra time, as his outdoor set at the Levitt Pavilion had a strict 9:30 p.m. curfew. His stylish, keytar-laced jams liberally pulled from vintage soul, disco and, of course, funk, and the crowd, parked on a lawn speckled with lawn chairs and beach balls, reveled in his good-time grooves.

Dam Funk, whose real name is Damon Riddick, regaled the audience with tales of growing up just blocks from the stage. He also grabbed listeners with songs that at one moment urged them to call their parents more often, and in another admonished fellow artists for using the “N word” in their work.

There was a slight international feel to the free event, as Make Music is modeled after the Fête de la Musique in Paris. The consulate general of France in Los Angeles is a partner, and it presented main stage performer SoKo, the eclectic French singer born Stéphanie Sokolinski. Her wispy songs were fragile but never felt overly delicate, as she twisted the phrase “We Might Be Dead by Tomorrow” into a love song.

When an audience member started yelling to her in French, SoKo appeared shocked, but less so once she translated what he was saying. “I love that that’s probably the only thing you know in French,” SoKo said, telling the English-speaking audience that she had just been told to take off her clothes. SoKo laughed it off, and it served as a reminder that music, like many of the choice acts at Make Music Pasadena, almost knows no boundaries -- set times and “safety concerns” being two notable exceptions.


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-- Todd Martens