BeachLife Festival

Larson Sutton on May 18, 2019
BeachLife Festival

Photo credit: Steve Rood

Over the ambitious three-day inaugural BeachLife festival, the most trafficked speck of space was a 20-foot wide piece of pavement bridging the Low Tide and High Tide stages.  Only a few yards separated the two main performance areas, allowing for free and easy movement of the masses between sets.  It was a simple detail, the kind of touch that becomes more significant as the hours of don’t-want-to-miss appearances accumulate, that helped make the first-year event an unequivocal success.

Take Sunday’s closing pair- Ziggy Marley at Low Tide; Willie Nelson at High Tide- as the model.  12,000 in the sand watching Ziggy work through an energetic slate of songs, mostly from his latest albums and a few nuggets from his father’s catalog, as day morphed into dusk.  Only minutes after the final notes of Marley’s “Look Who’s Dancing” dissolved away, Nelson strolled onto High Tide’s stage; the thousands turned 180-degrees, casually crossed over to the immaculate faux lawn, and settled in comfortably as “Whiskey River” started flowing.  Over Nelson’s right shoulder, the backdrop of boat masts, palm trees, and a panoramic sunset played along in perfect timing.  This was the life.

Turn back to Friday, and another picturesque Southern California day, when reggae transmitters Roots of Creation opened the High Tide schedule with their set dusted in Grateful Dead classics, including a lively “China Cat Sunflower” that segued into “Fire On the Mountain.”  It was a prescient kick-off for Day One, with most of the artists connecting back, in either style or substance, to the night’s closer, Bob Weir and Wolf Bros.  Donavon Frankenreiter delivered his easy winds, cowboy surfer slant, dipping into the Rolling Stones “Miss You,” while Bruce Hornsby, on the glistening lead from guitarist Gibb Droll, offered a beautifully extended “Over the Rise.”

Reggae icons Steel Pulse, colorful and sharp as ever, brought their one-drop to Low Tide, as Chris Robinson, leading As the Crow Flies, reminded everyone there why he is a bona fide rock star.  With unrelenting, hip-shaking magnetism, the untiring singer punched out one vintage Black Crowes rumbler after the next, as guitarist Jackie Greene’s stinging, singing solos answered every one of Robinson’s calls.  Back to the sand, Slightly Stoopid opened in laid-back, sit-down acoustic style, then went electric with the arrival of Weir for a two-song romp through “Franklin’s Tower,” and a tip to Tom Petty on “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”  Already packed in with highlights, Friday culminated with Weir and his Bros in what was a relatively standard set of songs for this combo, opening with a decidedly slow “Jack Straw” and ending a little over an hour later with Robinson and Greene joining for an encore of “Not Fade Away,” and an audience sing-along on “Ripple.”

Saturday skewed toward a variety of American rock touchstones, many with SoCal roots.  Perhaps the most fun of the afternoon party was Chevy Metal, the raucous rock cover band led by Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins, who split his time between frontman duties and drumming on a set solely of Van Halen scorchers.  Malibu’s folk-rock messengers Dawes gave an exceptionally heavier set, combining the ghosts of Laurel Canyon with modern, guitar-driven rock-and-roll.  Ending the middle day was a jukebox of America’s quintessential Southern California sound, as Brian Wilson, with Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, laced one Beach Boys’ gem into the next.

The final afternoon started with Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel, and a spirited run that included a definitive festival highlight: a wonderfully up-tempo take of the Dead’s “Eyes of the World,” with Stu Allen dazzling on guitar.  Blues Traveler renewed the ‘90s blues rock fire with a performance that included a conspicuous and thoughtful nod to another SoCal legend, covering Sublime’s “What I Got.”  A generational counterpart to Traveler, Big Head Todd and the Monsters sang their blues, and also dipped their toes into the past, as well, on a raging run of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”  Back at High Tide, Grace Potter wowed with a swirling set of roots rock, also giving BeachLife its second “Not Fade Away” of the weekend.

All that was left were the back-to-back Ziggy and Willie performances, and the feeling that in age of an ever increasing number of festivals happening around the world, BeachLife has the potential to become the next can’t-miss destination event.  Just a few miles north of the Redondo Beach site, it was raining in Los Angeles.  Yet, over this sun-kissed trio of days in early May, it was, literally and figuratively, nothing but blue skies.