Over the weekend of August 24th and 25th, I went a couple hours away from the Bay to cover the First City Festival in Monterey, California. The festival, in its first year of existence, was held at the Monterey Fairgrounds and Convention Center. The historic Monterey Pop Festival with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin took place there decades before. The festival took place over two days with 18 artists performing across 3 stages each day. In addition to the music there were also food trucks, craft vendors and a carnival area complete with rides and games. The lineup was predominately indie rock with the headliners of MGMT and Passion Pit the first night and Neko Case and Modest Mouse the second night. While there were several bands I was pretty familiar with, there were a large number I had never heard until I looked them up once I found out I would be covering the festival. While walking around and getting a feel for the festival on the first day I found out plenty of others were in the same boat. There were a few times I overheard people discussing their unfamiliarity with many of the artists and when meeting people it was a common topic that would come up. I, and many others were getting a chance to discover some new and interesting music in addition to seeing some well known acts. That’s not something many festivals have as a luxury and I certainly saw it as a bonus.
On the first day I got there early to give the grounds a look and plan out my schedule for the day. I was pleased to see all three stages were within a reasonable walking distance of each other and going back and forth between stages wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. There were some pretty good food options. Including some vegetarian fare in addition to the standard hot dog or burger places you see at these type of events. There was a pretty good selection of beer and liquor, including several craft beers as well. In addition to that there was a coffee truck offering some premium coffee options. People had to enter the festival through the carnival area and they were sticking around and having a good time playing games and riding the rides before heading over to the stages.
Eli “Paperboy” Reed got the day started with his oldies influenced style of rock. He received an enthusiastic response from the crowd who were dancing and singing a long with his brand of catchy tunes. He dressed the part and looked like he could easily fit in at a 60’s sock hop. His upbeat and fun set was a good start to the fest and drew a good amount of interest from the crowd. Next up was Jeffertitti’s Nile over on the Manzanita Stage. Compared to the main stage and the second stage this one was significantly smaller and had a much more intimate feel with a very low stage. Towards the back of this area is where you could find many of the families that brought small children, taking a more laid back approach to enjoying the festival. Through out the weekend this would be the main area where people laid on blankets in the grass and took time to chill out. The band and their garage rock sound made for an entertaining performance.
Next up was Delta Rae over on the second stage and was the first set of the festival that drew a large crowd and seemed well anticipated. The pit was totally full with photographers and a large crowd had gathered. They were one of the bigger highlights of the festival for me. I found them very entertaining while being impressed by their music. They are a folk rock band and everyone in the 6 piece band makes strong contributions to the music including 4 different people spending time singing. In addition to the full time drummer they also had a large bass drum on stage that different members would play with a mallet on certain songs. They performed with a lot of passion and energy and felt like the first big performance of the festival.
From there I made my way back and forth between all three stages. Over the course of a few hours I saw The Hold Steady put on a strong performance on the main stage with singer Craig Finn getting very theatrical during his vocals, The Black Angels getting cheered on by fans on the second stage and Guards drawing a huge crowd on the small Manzanita Stage, Father John Misty engaging in some fun banter and playing a well received set on the second stage as well as solid performances from Civil Twilight and Delta Spirit.
Beach House took the main stage around 6:30 pm for the first performance of the night that felt like a headlining performance. They were billed under MGMT and Passion Pit but still have a large fan base and respect from critics. At the start of their set the main stage area was getting significantly more crowded than it had all been all day. The band sounded good but their live show is very much like their music. By that I mean it is very mellow. The band doesn’t move or display much in the way of passion or energy. They do sound great and you could tell a lot of their hardcore fans were enjoying the show but for the size of the space they were performing it seemed underwhelming. I think they would have been perfect on the Manzanita Stage but because of their popularity the main stage was really the logical choice.
By the time MGMT got started the main stage area was mostly full. They received a warm reception from the crowd who sang along and danced to their music including popular songs like “Electric Feel” and “Time to Pretend”. Accompanying their music was an impressive light show that fit the feel of their music well. This band didn’t move around the stage much but the giant video screen behind them with the rapidly changing lights gave their show an energetic feel. The placement of their drummer up on a riser gave the crowd a better look than you normally get of drummers live. The crowd kept up their enthusiasm through the set for the most part. Towards the end while the band was taking time to play some slower and less danceable songs the crowd did seem to take a break but not long after that the intro to “Kids” was heard and the place went crazy while the band closed their set with their biggest hit.
By the time Passion Pit took the stage to close out the day it was after dark and the main stage was pretty much totally full with a sea of fans. They started with a frantic “I’ll Be Alright” which drove the crowd into a frenzy. Singer Michael Angelakos was all over the stage through out the whole set and his energy, combined with the light show, the music and the crowd gave the whole thing the feel of a giant dance party. Through out the set they played crowd pleasers like “Take a Walk” “ Carried Away” and “Sleepyhead”. Like MGMT before them, drummer Nate Donmoyer was up on risers and the crowd was getting a side view of him adding another interesting visual element to a show that was already visually stunning. The crowd was fully into the show through out whole performance. It seemed like everyone at the festival went home happy and Passion Pit was a great closer for the evening.
Day two of the festival opened with Bleached. They provided an upbeat start to the day and drew a pretty good sized crowd for one in the afternoon. Band members Jessica and Jennifer Clavin are old friends with Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast and the bands sounds like they have similar influences, but, with Bleached having more punk in them and being less surf rock influenced. In addition to playing songs off their most recent album they also played “Electric Chair”, an early b-side and “Hybrid Moments”, a Misfits cover.
After Bleached, I headed over to spend a little time at the Vaudeville Stage which was a small stage positioned in the center of most of the food options at the festival. Through out the weekend the stage provided more low key entertainment in the way of Manjinga the Magician, the Vau De Vire Society a burlesque meets contortionist group and the John Bros. Piano Company. It was a good stage for people to take some time out and eat or just relax, while still taking in some entertainment. A definite plus in my eyes.
The next act I checked out was Capital Cities. Before they got started I asked a photographer who shoots festivals for a living with a major wire service if there was anyone he had been seeing at the fests lately that he recommended. He said this band, Capital Cities had put on really good performances and getting more and more popular. He went on to tell me the band was really tight and the horn player was great. The band opened the show with their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” to a very positive crowd reaction. They continued to play a set that included the hit “Safe and Sound” and a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”. Trumpet player Spencer Ludwig stole the show on his parts and solos with strong playing and an energetic stage presence. The band as a whole pulled of impressive live renditions of their dancey electro pop songs and even danced in unison while giving the crowd a dance lesson. As their performance continued, they drew more and more of a crowd. For the rest of they day they were talk of the festival.
From there I headed over the main stage to check out Dr. Dog. They drew a large crowd on the main stage and clearly have a large following. They played a crowd pleasing, mostly uptempo set in their normal folky jam band style. Next up was Electric Guest on the second stage. They had a good turn out and had some friendly banter with some of the fans beforehand. Like several artists that weekend, they fit into the elctro pop genre and got people dancing and enjoying themselves. I then returned to the main stage to catch singer songwriter Devendra Banhart. His performance was well received by the crowd and many found his somewhat mellow music to have enough rhythm to dance too. I found his set entertaining, he has a strong but smooth delivery of his vocals, which generally were extremely catchy. It can be hard for an artist performing this style of music to keep a crowds attention on a stage that large, but he did it. I then made sure to get over to the Manzanita Stage to catch Avey Tare’s set. Tare is a founding member of Animal Collective and drew a large crowd to the small stage. With his sometimes unintelligible singing he put on a entertaining performance and was a nice choice for the final performance on the Manzanita Stage.
While Neko Case was taking the main stage as the first of the nights headliners, I wondered how the crowd would receive her. While she is an amazing talent, I did know that her alt country sound may not be as enthusiastically received as the more danceable bands from the previous night. The Main stage wasn’t as full as it was for those bands the night before but still had a large turn out and gave her a very warm reception. She opened her set with one of her more popular and uptempo songs with “People Got A Lot of Nerve”. She mostly stayed in one place while switching between just singing and playing guitar or tambourine while singing, but she had a good stage presence. The strength of her vocals demand your attention and the emotion in both the vocals and her face kept my attention. She played an interesting set that included some new songs like the upbeat and catchy “Man” and older popular tracks like “Hold On, Hold On”. Early in the set she told the crowd how beautiful of a place they were in and mentioned she was happy she got to watch Dr. Dog earlier in the day. She closed her set with the soft and tender “I Wish I Was the Moon” and left the stage to much applause.
The final band of the festival was Modest Mouse. The band has been around for 20 years and while they may not be at their peak in terms of popularity they still have the respect of most indie rock fans to be able to headline a festival like this. Several people I spoke with had seen them before and were looking forward to their set. They got their performance started with “Dark Center of the Universe” and continued to play a good variety of songs including “Dramamine”, “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”. Singer and guitarist Isaac Brock makes the type of facial expressions you’d imagine when listening to the bands more intense songs. The band had a strong stage presence, especially on their more rocking songs. Isaac also displayed a unique sense of humor with his banter with the audience. About half through the set he asked everyone to hold their breath for four seconds. About two seconds into him counting down several guys start yelling out and cheering to which he responded since it was such a hard thing to do, they’d have to try again. This time around a good majority of the crowd yelled out before the four seconds were up and he gave up and decided to move on. After playing “The View” the band left the stage and the crowd began chanting for an encore following that up with furious clapping. The band came back on the stage and closed with an intense and epic performance of “Spitting Venom” that clocked in at close to 10 minutes.
The First City Festival got off to a great start in its first year. They had a strong indie rock line up that included a handful of very strong and established acts in addition to having many up and coming acts that will only be getting more and more known. The carnival area, the Vaudeville Stage and the merchants gave plenty of options to be able to find something enjoyable even if you wanted to take a break from the music. The highlights of the festival for me were Neko Case, Capital Cities, Bleached and Eli “Paperboy” Reed, but there was something unique about everyone, and I didn’t find any of the acts I saw disappointing. The line up was solid from top to bottom and gave a variety of strong and popular acts to catch throughout the day. It all seems to have been a success and I’m sure it’ll be back and even better next year.