Los Angeles’ famed Sunset Strip played host to a three-day music festival, August 26th-28th. Days One & Two had concerts taking place at venues along the Strip, with Day Three shutting down the iconic piece of pavement for an epic end.
To any passerby on the street or in their car, the Sunset Strip last night looked like it does on any other night of the year, with bands of all kinds loading and unloading at the various legendary music venues. But, this was no ordinary night; it was the first night of the Sunset Strip Music Festival, which culminates this Saturday when several blocks of the Strip will actually be blocked off for the outdoor concert that will be headlined by The Smashing Pumpkins, Slash featuring Myles Kennedy & Fergie, Common, Kid Cudi, and Neon Trees, among others. On Saturday it will look like a festival.
Some notable performances from last night include a relatively unknown group called Rival Sons, whose bombastic, blues-influenced rock ‘n’ roll charged some genuine energy into the all too often too cool for school audience of Hollywood. They explained to QRO in a brief interview after their performance that they don’t plan their set too much, so that they can truly improvise on stage together. “We like to keep our music as dangerous as possible,” said guitarist Scott Holiday. They played at the Roxy right before Filter headlined at that venue. Best known for their hits “Take a Picture” and “Hey Man, Nice Shot,” their recently released The Trouble With Angels is reportedly a heavier and darker rock effort than previous albums. Their energy on stage had the packed out Roxy cheering with fists pumping.
The talented rock vocalist and songwriter Beth Hart headlined at the legendary Whiskey. She took her raw passion from a short acoustic set with guitarist Jon Nichols, to a full band setting joined by bassist Tom Lilly and drummer Todd Wolf, to a set of songs on the piano. Here, she was joined by the man of the festival, Slash. They performed a song they had written together called “Mother Maria”. The crowd was very excited as the unassuming rock legend joined Hart on stage to finish the set with her and her band. Earlier in the night, there was a tribute held at the House of Blues a few blocks east for Slash, who is said to be synonymous with the Sunset Strip and a big contributor to its legendary status. He will be performing again this Saturday on one of the main outdoor stages.
Day Two of the Sunset Strip Music Fest was about as eventful as the first. It looked like a regular night on the strip to most passersby because all of the festival performances took place inside the legendary clubs lining these several blocks of rock music history.
QRO was able to catch Young Rapscallions at the Roxy. Their straight ahead punk rock music was shy of memorable, but everyone there will remember that their drummer is actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin from the movie Superbad). Occasional cheers for “McLovin” could be heard from the crowd during Young Rapscallion’s set. Following was a group from Long Beach called Pour Habit. Super high-energy punk/reggae had some of the young fans in a mosh circle. Their lead singer was all over the club, singing, and standing on a wall dividing the tables from the standing area. Few bands had as much fun last night as Pour Habit. The headliners at the Roxy were The Expendables, and after a long delay, they finally took the stage and were welcomed by cheering fans. Puffs of smoke rising from the audience seemed to parallel songs like “Ganja Smuggling”. Their music ranged from reggae to hard punk rock, and the audience swayed or moshed accordingly.
Nico Vega gave a spectacular performance at the Key Club opening for Unwritten Law. Some of the most melodic music of Friday night, she, her guitarist, and her drummer were able to fill the Key Club with great sound just as a trio. Her antics on stage were wild and no holds barred. Even if the audience didn’t know what the songs were about, we knew she meant it. Unwritten Law took the stage to close out the night at the Key Club with some hard garage rock. They inspired some moshing, and their bass player had a distinctive way of singing up into the microphone.
Finally over at the Whiskey, probably the biggest name of the night, P.O.D. played to a packed house of appreciative and devoted fans. For them the Whiskey holds a lot of memories as they told us because they played there when no one knew of them back in the early ‘90s, then they played there for Atlantic records in ‘98 right before they signed a deal, and now they were playing again.
Can’t wait for tomorrow! Smashing Pumpkins, Slash with Myles Kennedy and Fergie, Common, Kid Cudi, Neon Trees, Steel Panther, Semi-Precious Weapons.
Saturday, compared to the two preceding nights, was the true event. Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins put it best when he said, “I can hardly drive down this street, I can’t believe I’m playing on it.” It’s a big deal for The Strip to be closed. The two stages set up on opposing ends of the east-west running Sunset Blvd. had people at one end staring into the setting sun and at the other end facing away from it. Leave it to L.A. to give people an even tan at a music festival.
Bands played all day and into the night inside the clubs lining the street, but one of the first to kick things off outside was Neon Trees. They played on the east stage giving a whole-hearted performance as the sun began to set in front of them. Their hit song “Animal” sounded great and went over really well live. Lead singer, Tyler Glenn, gave a short motivational speech about dressing and looking however you want to in the spirit of freedom of self-expression before closing their set. His words acted as a wonderful transition from their set to Semi-Precious Weapons‘ set. Their cross-dressing front man, Justin Tranter, is not only a sight to behold but also a true showman and vocal talent. They have brought their ‘filthy glamour’ aesthetic from early days in New York with longtime friend Lady Gaga all the way to Gaga’s Monster Ball tour. Somehow they looked very at home in West Hollywood, where, as Tranter told the crowd, they have played more shows than in any other city.
While The Strip is known for its extensive rock history, hip-hop has been a staple on The Strip for years, and the first to represent that aspect of the scene on Saturday was Travis McCoy on the west stage. His hit “Billionaire (feat. Bruno Mars)” was an instant sing-along for the whole street, but most of the rest of his set lacked the same kind of impact. Back on the west stage, the sound crew seemed to be going through a technical nightmare trying to set up for Common. The audience got to follow along with the problems as the soundman spoke to the stagehands over the P.A. for us all to hear. It was a really unprofessional display by the sound people and totally unworthy of an artist and music veteran like Common. But, as a true professional should, Common took the stage and delivered a killer set despite the technical difficulties. Playing hits old and new and backed by a tight band, he gave us a quick history of hip-hop with a medley of some of his favorite jams from other artists such as Big E Smalls and the Beastie Boyz. He even treated the audience to a bit of freestyling, and closed with his hit “Universal Mind Control”.
Slash took the west stage with his new and talented vocalist Myles Kennedy and played to an appreciative audience songs from his solo work. Only later in the set did he oblige a Guns ‘n’ Roses hit and another one later after he had been joined on stage by none other than Fergie. Mostly known for hip-hop and club music, Fergie displayed her howling, rock vocal abilities combined with an amazing physical energy. On stage beside Slash, their charisma seemed to feed off each other in a chemistry that was somewhat lacking with Kennedy, Slash’s regular singer. Slash, this year’s Sunset Strip Music Fest honoree, shared a few words about how much he loves this city and how humbling it is to be honored this year.
Kid Cudi was another among the most notable showman of the night. Backed by only a DJ, Cudi had no problem commanding the whole stage and the audience, most of who, presumably, came to see him, as he was the last act on the east stage. The other half of the festival attendees was there to see The Smashing Pumpkins on the west stage. The Pumpkins played a happy mix of old and new songs and only showed favoritism for old favorites during the encore. The biggest cheers, of course, went to the songs people recognized from the ‘90s, so The Pumpkins should be commended for believing in their new material and featuring it prominently in their set. The sound was muddier than it could’ve been, which made the lighter songs like “1979” and “Song For a Son” (a standout among the new material) sound refreshingly clear compared to the heavier songs. A lot of their characteristic layered guitar sounds were lost in the overwhelming bass sound. Corgan has a simple stand and deliver performance attitude, but there is somehow still a strong and sincere connection between him and the audience. His new young drummer, 19-year-old Mike Byrne, was featured as they started to jam Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” and Byrne took his turn at being John Bonham. He was dang good, and Corgan seemed really pumped about him too. Corgan added a personal touch to his set by inviting his two kids on stage. They wore lucha libre masks, which kind of brought to mind Michael Jackson’s kids often seen in public wearing masks, but it came across as just a joke with Corgan’s kids, of course. They delivered to him a piece of paper on which he had listed a bunch of his influences that he wanted to share with the audience. The audience stayed put and cheered after the set, probably still hungry for more of their old favorite Pumpkin songs, and, to everyone’s enjoyment, the band returned for a rousing encore.
The three-day Sunset Strip Music Festival was mostly small game until Saturday with only a few special moments in the clubs on Thursday and Friday, but all in all, the fest was a great celebration of The Strip and its heritage. Some of the influences that Billy Corgan listed such as Van Halen and The Doors were native to The Strip, and the Thursday night ceremony honoring Slash and the few words he spoke about “this town” leant a really nice local pride to the aura of the festival. Driving west on Sunset toward the festival is a huge Dodgers billboard with a picture of Slash that reads, “This is my town.”
-words: Jonathan Byram
-photos: Benjamin Byram