This is a golden era for the kind of festival that Beach Goth set out to be.
A growing crop of events — Desert Daze, Burgerama, Diversion and Further Future among them — are going intimate, with capacity for just a few thousand fans in off-the-grid locations. The acts are packaged in imaginative bills, catering to genre-agnostic (or super-devoted) fans who would follow them anywhere for a transcendent moment.
Even as events like FYF Fest and Odd Future’s Camp Flog Gnaw have grown up from that model, we now have a wave of smaller, more refined gatherings working hard to re-consider what a festival should be.
So it’s a shame that Beach Goth, perhaps the most promising and musically exciting of this year’s more curated festivals, turned out to be a prime example of why it’s so hard to do this kind of show right.
The music might be the easy part. This year’s Beach Goth, the fifth annual and biggest production yet from the ingeniously sleazy O.C. band the Growlers, had the most spit-take interesting bill of any 2016 fest not featuring the likes of the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney.
At the top of Saturday’s lineup was the first local show from Bon Iver since his recent re-invention as an avant-garde noise composer of profound beauty and ambition (Bon Iver, who’s real name is Justin Vernon, headlines the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday with Patti Smith, another Beach Goth performer).
Bon Iver’s new album, “22, a Million,” was a total re-imagining of his one-of-a-kind voice, cutting out his high-lonesome art folk for a haze of laptop static. And after a full day of Beach Goth’s logistical pains, Vernon had the star power and bracing freshness to make it all OK again.
There was a lovely, spooky turn from James Blake, and some ’90s nostalgia fun from TLC. YouTuber and “The Voice” contestant Melanie Martinez’s stage was all creepy Internet nihilism (she was decked out like an infant Lolita, baby bottles and all), and there were also tons of compelling punkish and electronic acts like Gang of Four, Health, Tricky and the Faint.
In light of Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel win, Smith seems more essential than ever, another bridge between the rock and literary worlds that had long viewed one other with skepticism. Onstage, when one could get close enough to see her, Smith sounded eerie and beautiful, a performer you could read deeply or listen to but also never turn away from.
It’s hard to imagine any other fest booking such polar opposites as folk-punks the Violent Femmes and the violent femmes of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Yet Beach Goth reveled in that omnivorousness, which could have made it essential viewing for years to come. (Sunday’s bill had Justice, Grimes, Gucci Mane and Nicolas Jaar – as strong a night as they come).
But just about everything else, from the layout to the parking to the general crush of too many bodies in too small a space, conspired to make actually being at Beach Goth as unpleasant as possible.
It was supposed to go differently this year. The fest was initially booked for Oak Canyon Park in Silverado, a much more sylvan location better equipped for handling big festival crowds. But just weeks before showtime, fest organizers, with nary an explanation, moved it back to its location of years past — the lots surrounding the Observatory, the O.C. music venue that for all its booking savvy is essentially in the back of an anonymous suburban office park.
The lack of easy transit or even helpful signage meant that fans either ponied up $30 to $50 for the few on-site parking spots available (they sold out early afternoon), doubled-back to the O.C. Fairgrounds and took a shuttle to the site or rolled the dice and parked at a nearby condo complex praying to not get towed. All the pain of festival parking, with all the charm of going to work at a Santa Ana medical billing complex.
The main festival entrance immediately led past a tacky row of promotional booths for Swisher Sweets, vape supply outlets and cheap teen-goth clothing. Once inside, almost everything but the main stage was, quite literally, impossible to see — lines to get into the Observatory venue rarely budged, and the outdoor stage’s crowd pushed back into the main thoroughfare, making it a constant human churn.
Maybe I’m just getting old and bougie in my festival dotage, but any regular festival-goer would have noted the wan food options, lack of quiet spaces or absolutely anywhere to sit without somebody in a full-body Scooby-Doo suit or candy-raving undertaker costume stepping on your hand.
Festivals are hard to pull off. But there are so many that do it well in 2016 that it’s tough to excuse that sloppiness — let’s hope it’s not cynicism — for tickets that still ran $99 a day (more for VIP, which meant almost nothing but an extra bar).
It can, and probably will, get better eventually. It’s not like FYF didn’t have the same hair-tearing frustrations as it went through its growing pains. It too is worth noting that the Growlers would be busy enough with their day job as one of O.C.’s most beloved young rock bands, so it’s a serious feat that they can even pull off Beach Goth as a sideline.
But for all the goodwill and local pride the band has earned with Beach Goth, and for all the promise this year’s bill suggested, the fest environment was so slapdash that the Growlers might have burned off a good bit of both.
To paraphrase a hit from TLC, one of the night’s high-point acts: This year’s Beach Goth was hanging out the passenger side of its best friend’s ride, trying to holler at fans that deserved better.
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