Who is the H2O Music Festival for?
On paper, Saturday’s hash of old school hip-hop (A Tribe Called Quest, Big Boi), buffed-for-radio Latin pop (Pitbull, Prince Royce), bro-down EDM (DJ Chuckie) and highbrow pan-Latino soul (La Santa Cecilia) looked like a losing play of concert-booking Boggle.
H2O fest, presented by the Latino media conglomerate Univision, is plunked in the L.A. summer fest season right between the rave-centric HARD Summer and the punky FYF Fest. Each of those festivals has dedicated and growing audiences at the same venue, Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown, and it’s difficult to imagine something as scattershot as H2O earning similar long-term allegiance.
But after a few hours at the two adjacent stages at H2O, the answer to “Who is this for?” became clearer. Namely, everybody in L.A. who’s currently underserved by outdoor music fest culture -- people who like rap but don’t make an identity out of it; young fans for whom the Anglo and Latino pop charts are entirely assimilated (see the rising Inglewood rapper Becky G as Exhibit A), and dance-music fans who don’t keep up with the micro-niches and Wookie-boots of today’s EDM.
The whole thing was a mess of genre clashes, and H2O suffered from a cynical streak of marketing. Chevron logos were everywhere (attracting a funny battalion of oil-industry protesters in Dia de los Muertos masks). A reporter, trying to enjoy an afternoon lunch on a hillside vista, could barely hear the main stage performance due to the constant carnival-barking of a rep from Lowe’s hardware.
But a few performances were good enough to make messiness almost seem like a method.
Big Boi, the bulwark of the revered Atlanta duo OutKast, performed his solo set while perched atop a red-and-gilded throne. He had a non-vain reason for this (he wore a knee brace and cane after a brutal on-stage fall earlier this year). But the regal seating only bolstered his torrents of rhymes and charisma. Between the jungle-infused drumming of recent single “Apple of My Eye” to a volley of OutKast hits from the landmark “Stankonia” album, Big Boi remained the star of this little golden age for old-guy hip-hop.
Conversely, Prince Royce is a sort of Dominican Bieber from the Bronx, with a swept-up pompadour and just enough swaggy-ness to make H2O’s assembled teenagers lose their minds. It’s easy to see why Royce is a rising star with top-40 potential (particularly his dancey single with Jessica Sanchez, “No One Compares”). But his saccharine and bachata-lite R&B makes Bieber sound like Otis Redding by comparison.
The L.A. group La Santa Cecilia culled from the whole of Latin music across Mexico and the Caribbean, while delivering it with the soulful fire of ‘60s rock. Lead vocalist Marisoul has a heck of an instrument, evoking Janis Joplin while her band dipped into politically volatile norteno, cumbia and straight-ahead Woodstock shredding.
DJ Chuckie, a Holland-raised fixture on today’s dance-fest gauntlet, made a big show of his allegiance to the “Dirty Dutch” sound, a strain of hard house with occasional gestures to reggaeton and cumbia. It’s a credible and appropriate sound for H20, but he marred his set with unconscionably cheesy DJ moves, like ripping the guitar intro from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a caveman bass drop.
A Tribe Called Quest immediately righted the ship, however, with takes on staples such as “Buggin’ Out” and “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” that have lost nothing over the last two decades. In an era where the giants of hip-hop are just arguing over art purchases, and the underground is on too much ketamine to finish their verses, Tribe’s scrappy vigor united H20’s disparate crowd.
Top-billed Pitbull headlined his own Hollywood Bowl show in June, and at this point has his rave-rap seducer’s shtick on permanent lockdown. But it’ll be interesting to see if the catch-all idea behind H2O can keep a devoted crowd of its own in the future. A music fest for every L.A. fan without a fest of their own? That could be a show for a huge, untapped crowd of music fans -- or a fest for no one in particular at all.