Review: Hard Summer 2015: The Weeknd, Chemical Brothers deliver big first night

The Weeknd performs Saturday during Hard Summer at the Fairplex in Pomona.

The Weeknd performs Saturday during Hard Summer at the Fairplex in Pomona.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Is it time to call Hard Summer the dominant music festival in Los Angeles?

It’s got the numbers: With all 65,000 tickets sold for each of its two days, the festival is right about where Coachella was just before it became an international symbol for SoCal desert decadence. Hard Summer also has the top-tier headliners: the newly populist R&B hero the Weeknd and the British techno duo Chemical Brothers, along with a slate of hip-hop acts such as L.A.'s Schoolboy Q (the ephemeral Atlantan Young Thug canceled his set at the last minute) and EDM producers Porter Robinson and Big Gigantic.

So yes, it might be time to regard Hard Summer as the pacesetter in the second wave of L.A.’s EDM culture. The extra 20,000 fans per night certainly crowded the walkways at the Pomona Fairplex, but they also added to the enthusiasm at its biggest sets — especially at a surprise main-stage set from the French producer DJ Snake, who said he “wanted to give fans a gift” in the form of bass-rattling trap beats.


The festival’s dramatic expansion this year did come with tragedy: Two women died of suspected drug overdoses Saturday, raising questions about an adequate availability of water and EMTs.

But extra stages, extra walkways and bigger VIP areas helped to partition the masses into manageable throngs. On the main stages, the music was as diverse and revealing as any other in mainstream electronic music today.

It’s becoming harder to call Hard Summer a pure EDM festival, even given that genre’s blanket inclusion of house, dubstep, rap beats and more. The Weeknd, despite his beautifully nihilistic early albums, has become as mainstream an R&B singer as Usher.

His 8 p.m. set Saturday — surprisingly early, given his late-night vibes — sported airy and moody covers of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” and the whole of his collaboration with Ariana Grande, “Love Me Harder.” This was not a 5 a.m. shift sweating out the Ecstasy in a hotel suite; this was a pop artist at the top of his powers. When he closed out with his two biggest, career-shifting singles — the disco-sliding “I Can’t Feel My Face” and the quiet-storm ballad “Earned It” from “Fifty Shades of Grey” — crowds sang back every word.

Right after the Weeknd, ‘90s staples the Chemical Brothers reversed course entirely, delivering the undisputed set of the night with an hour and a half of live techno that felt volatile, alien and absolutely pleasure-centric.

Highlights from their great new album “Born in the Echoes,” including the sad but hard-stepping “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted,” dove headlong into house uplifts like “Star Guitar” and the big-beat sass of “Galvanize” and “Block Rockin’ Beats.” Video projections veered from ambient scenes to ‘60s kabuki acid trips.

By the last of it, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons were climbing their gear and high-fiving each other in a torrent of cable-frying noise. It was an appropriately big end to Hard’s first night as L.A.’s biggest electronic music festival.

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