With a thing like the West Beach Music Festival you get what you expect in many ways, and as with other festivals, there are always some surprises. You get your purveyors of funnel cake, fish tacos, Bento dishes, sno-cones, and of course beer. You find booths of cheap sunglasses, tents dedicated to spreading earth awareness, the “Endless Bummer” movie promo booth, and the likes of hand-made jewelry and henna tattoos. These things come standard with any SoCal event, as far as I can tell, in my year here. Then, you can be surprised by the giant inflatable shark slide for the children in attendance. A hula hooping tent takes a second glance, and a high priced halfway decent beer selection can cause alarm, and as always the people who attend can bring you a moment of pause. But on the beach west of Stearn’s Warf in Santa Barbara on the sand, was this third annual festival with an overall theme that I am not too fond of…Reggae.
All photos were taken by Wesley Bauman, Contributing Writer
I will pull no punches here. I am not a fan of Reggae. I don’t care for the general ilk of the people that play and most definitely not a fan of those who love it. I am a man that comes from Oregon originally with strong ties to Alaska and Wisconsin, so my musical taste tends in a very different direction than that of music with themes of marijuana, revolution, and peace/love. This vein of music that Bob Marley champions and strongly influences long after his death has been prostituted to white kids with shameful dreads and drug addiction to go with their flat brimmed hats and strict shirtless dress code. Reggae has been taken from Rastafarians and handed, like everything else in today’s culture starting so many years ago, to white and off-white suburban kids…with only a few exceptions to prove the rule. Some of those talented exceptions were at the festival, but preceding and proceeding them were a few cookie cutter kids that were all equally talented and mostly sounded the same.
When the gates opened the event was sparsely populated for some time, so navigation was easy even until the early evening, so getting my hands on a beer was an easy task at 12:30pm. Had to start the day off right and begin to nurse the buzz that makes for a great day at the beach and on assignment. After procuring a surprisingly good Newcastle Summer Ale at a painful $6 I began listening to the first band on this long and treacherous day, One Drop. They played the Bashment Stage, which was coined the ‘Reggae stage’ by the event booklet I was handed on the way in. One Drop was a very strong start and a seemingly stereotypical Reggae band from Santa Barbara, but they surprised with some great music and a friendly banter with the crowd. As previously mentioned they adhered to the dress code, especially their front man, to flip flops and no shirt. The show was a short set but they played tunes with strong overtones of peace and love, of course, and entertained the crowd with wandering bass lines backed by strong drums and electric guitars, working the reverb petal to no end. All too talented and completely independent, a label-less band of this caliber was a great way to start. I had to stop myself from swaying to the tunes because they are infectious.
I mean literally infectious. I found this throughout the day with the music played. I submit this for your approval. Reggae causes involuntary swaying and dancing of the most embarrassing level when participated in by white people. Have you seen video from Woodstock? Well then you know that white people are not known for their rhythm and smooth moves, and Reggae brings out the worst. The swaying side to side and bobbing of the dreadlocks covered head is almost hard to watch. The most difficult thing to break your stare is that odd convulsing that comes from running in a small circle and doing what looks like interpretive dance as the bass vibrates your ribcage. This was to be seen everywhere all day, and when mixed with booze in the “Heineken Extra Pale internment camps” known as beer gardens (though nothing grows there, just flows) the rhythm is sporadic, the dancing tends more to stumbling, and the more complicated dances become a ballet of keeping balance with beer in hand and dizzy head swaying, which starts to become quite impressive, especially as the day goes on and the state of intoxication deserves a “Mission Accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier.
One Drop was a great start, nearly getting me moving, unwillingly, but when Lonesome Dub hit the main stage called “Bob’s Stage,” I began to be a bit impressed if only for what they were playing, not how they were playing it. Once again an amalgam of “SB Locs,” “Carpis,” and one guy from the Redlands, which he shouldn’t admit out loud apparently, Reggaed (I made it up, like rocked, but with Reggae) the crowd with the likes of the usual guitar, bass, drums, but then threw in some very appropriately used sax, trumpet, and even a trombone. They were younger guys, but they played a more up tempo version of Reggae which felt more fun, less revolution and more good times. I liked the creative use of instruments and the overall feel of the show. These kids, I only say that as a 24 year old because they looked even a year younger than me, brought some decent guitar riffing solos and a laid back energy that fit for the crowd at the time of day.
Before you can blink, The Kicks jump right in to it on the Bashment Stage as Lonesome Dub finished. It is hard to escape these stages right next to one another. By design these are the main show stages, one in the beer garden, one outside, so the crowd does not need to move. It is tough to pull away from the voice of The Kicks’ front woman. Warm and inviting her voice is, the guitar work is bouncy and just a good show. I loved many of the baselines in this show and the songs had some substance and messages, like many Reggae songs, but they weren’t all about pot and partying obviously. A more mature, both literally and figuratively, band with sound talent who has a great time doing what they do.
After finally breaking away from the main stages and the beer garden I got to wandering and exploring the other stages and goings on. As I found near the Sandbox Stage, the one set aside “for G and PG music,” for the whole family there was henna tattoos, the hula booth, and fun family tunes in the form of Tom Freund and his ukulele. Out beyond the booze and bands were food booths lined up for blocks along the fences and the most disturbing great white shark, two story slide for kids. It was just kinda scary like when you think back to Fraggle Rock and that Puffinstuff TV show and think “this was for kids? Who let us watch this stuff?” Out there in the expansive acres of sand was the Chino’s photo booth where scantily clad girls in rubber mini-skirts would get in a photo booth with you which was right next to the loneliest place in the event…the Oasis Stage. This was the Electronica stage and there was almost no one, I mean no one, there as acts scratched and mixed house music, top 40, and Electronica beats for dancing. Yet there was no one dancing. At this hour it seemed so empty with the massive tent it was situated in and the one, yes one singular, woman dancing. I had to leave, I felt bad for the guy on stage.
Getting back to the Main Stage the likes of Still Time really start to get the rock, funk, and Reggae together for one hell of a stage show. With infectious chorus’ with blues undertones and a rocking harmonica, I enjoyed the show and so did the crowd, which had grown. I must say though, for my buck, there isn’t a bad show that includes a harmonica. If you got a guy up there who can rock a harmonica solo like Still Time did, you are going to be loved by a crowd. Their stage presence was fun, very relaxed, and with songs inspired by Nintendo, Martin Luther King, and drinking with your best friends, you’re not going to disappoint the West Beach crowd. What had begun to happen as Still Time went on was that these afternoon concert goers were starting to dig in, find a spot, and relax. One couple piled sand up in a way so that they could lie down, and the sand supported their backs and head like a pool lounger, very SoCal. This was where I got a chance, during the Still Time show, to look around at the people extensively and began to see the relaxed SoCal style that people think of when they think California, sun hats, sun tans, and some beautiful women. Still Time was a great show and the people were still coming.
What came next on the Bashment stage inside the “Alcoholic beverage agricultural area” (beer garden) was Pacific Dub. Here on the stage were a bunch of kids, young guys in tattoos, board shorts, no shirts, playing what sounded like Slightly Stupid and Sublime if they weren’t as talented as they are. These kids rocked the reverb and stuck to a theme of women, weed, and a little world peace. But they just bothered me. I felt the bass lines were simple for the most part, and…wait I got it, I felt it was too poppy! It felt like pop-Reggae. I know this is very offensive, but it sounded like a very marketable cross breed. Don’t get me wrong, it was catchy stuff, guitar solos were sick, the crowd liked them, they had crazy energy on stage, but they threw some poorly written rap in there, tried some lyricism, and as a hip-hop fan, I was really put off. Rap, hip hop is not for everyone, and with this kind of Reggae they were playing I felt hip hop was inappropriate, and unnecessary. Least favorite show of the day, but it was still a 6 out of 10.
Next came the first rock, real rock, of the day. The Bravery was the first band with a really decent crowd, the big afternoon name and a stage show that was crazy. People were clamoring for a view of the stage as the band put on an amazingly show. They played great music, and the frontman for the Bravery moves like Mick Jagger with a great voice unto himself. In the vein of the Killers and similar bands they mix electro background pieces under their rocking, live play and the almost dissonant voice of Sam Endicott. His singing is nontraditional and when mixed with the rest of the parts of this band and the energy of Moose on lead guitar they had one hit of a show. They did feel a little out of place since at one point Sam mentioned, “We need more Reggae songs…like 200 hundred Reggae bands…and us.” It was a great show, so expressive, they owned the stage using every inch to perform and move around for the crowd. Arguably the best stage performance on the day. There are contenders though…
As the crowd maxed out before G Love it became difficult to keep my photo equipment clean and everything was covered in dust. You had to waste no time drinking your beer or you were going to have a layer of dust on the head before you got it down. This is the one downside, and probably the reason beach concerts don’t happen more often, the dust. On the pacific coast we have some very steady winds, and as such, west beach became a scene out of Laurence of Arabia with port-a-potties as the sun began to set. The dust was difficult to shoot in, and you had to breathe through your nose, because you would be chewing on your air if you breathed through your mouth. Yeah, I hope there are more of these soon that way I can go listen to music in a massive kitty litter box. Between the winds and the dust I kept my sunglasses on until dark to protect my eyes. I was inappropriately dressed for this event during the day, just not enough skin. As the sun set though, the second reason for a lack of beach concerts came to light, the chill of the ocean breeze. Now, my pants didn’t seem so stupid did they?
As people increased their clothing to skin ratios G Love hit the stage at 6, and during his set the sun actually set. When he started though, the dust had one amazing effect. As the setting sun passed behind the stage the light passed through the dusty air creating this amazing backlight that a photographer can only dream about in an open stage live show like this. With great light, G Love and Special Sauce just blew the crowd’s mind. The lyricism, the intimacy with the crowd, and the playful manner he performs in, was just sucked down by the crowd like a six dollar beer. He really spoke to the audience a lot, gave the cops a hard time for busting pot smokers, and with songs about his roadies and booty calls, not directly related, the crowd got to dancing in the waning light and loved the show. I think anyone who can play a guitar and a harmonica at the same time without missing a beat should get a metal or some kind of dinner in their honor. He worked that harmonica while strumming an electric guitar as he walked around the stage, which was between appropriately playful and tongue and cheek lyrics. What I appreciate about G Love is his ability to be who he is as a rapper and mix it seamlessly with real blues and rock music while keeping the tunes very funky. His musical design is the same as his musical performance, a very careful juggling act that he pulls off on every song. It seems so effortless but nothing he does is simple and easy, just an amazing stage show and some great tunes as the sun set.
At this point the place has filled up, it is maxing out and as Rey Fresco plays the Bashment stage Shwayze is playing the Oasis Stage that, now that the sun has set, is drawing a near tent filling crowd. Rey Fresco plays his guitar as a bass is strum in time with a freaking harp. You know you are a cool band when you can pull off a harp as a Reggae show. Big props to Rey Fresco as Shwayze gets the crowd moving in what seems another world on the other side of the park. Shwayze serenades the ladies with tunes, not G-rated, and the crowd convulses under strobing lights, neon, and electronic beats. Glow sticks and rhythmic, sexually charged dancing is not too far a cry from what is going on with Rey Fresco in the “Beer Garden of Good and Evil” as Rey pumps out strong tunes, great music, and an energy that seems so appropriate for some reason between G Love and Ben Harper, as he is placed. I can’t explain it, but it seemed like the perfect transition from performer to performer.
Now, here I want to illustrate one point the designers of this event failed to realize. Sparsely placed flood lights along the walls of the event don’t help in navigating the sands of the spectator areas in the dead of night. After about 8pm, it became a very dangerous situation to navigate the crowds in the beer garden, and just getting there became a very careful dance of apologizing for stepping on and running in to people. As a man with an expensive camera it was a very scary prospect to try and navigate my way to the beer line before last call through a veritable sea of intoxicated people in the dark with dangerous fluids splashing around from boisterous conversations. I demand more light for next year! As I made it to the line for my beer I had eyes like a hawk watching for drunks with full beers and no peripheral vision. I got my beer and got to drink it is peace under a flood light by the outer wall as Rey Fresco finished before I made my way back across the event to the media pit for the final show, Ben Harper and Relentless7.
As I make my way across to the stage front, I am going to admit here that…ooh sorry about that…that I had heard of him, Ben Harper, ‘heard of’ that is. I have never heard his…ooh, sorry, was that your hand…songs. I had no idea what he looked like or what to expect. As I said before this is really…well you watch it buddy, I’m trying to walk here…not my scene. My tastes lean more toward underground Midwest hip hop and other equally…well stand up and I wouldn’t step on you…random things like Nashville rap and the like. Ok, Press, can I? Thanks. Ok, made it to the pit, and as with any other time I have covered the big names, it is combat photography. For the most part I recognize these people. In the pit you get used to seeing the same group. The husband and wife team, the Asian guy, the other Asian guy, the guy with Sammy’s rented equipment, and an assortment of others, as well as Brooks students with stars in their eyes; the type nervous and don’t know the etiquette of shooting a thing like this so, we all get a shot we can use. I won’t go in to it, but always look over your shoulder after you get a good angle on a shot, because you need to let the next guy get that shot, etiquette designed so no one gets killed by their editor for ‘not getting that shot’.
I digress, so it started…sort of. After being announced, in high fashion, to a screaming crowd there was little activity on stage- the ever unpopular last preparations and bad timing. That old ‘we need five minutes’ followed by, ‘did he just announce us?’, which creates an awkward time where chants like ‘Harper, Harper, Harper’ get started and then end – the kind of time where a little pushing and shoving in the front row can turn caddy in anticipation. You need to strike the crowd while they are hot and that five minute delay can kill a crowd’s energy after a day in the sun and soaked in beer and marijuana as some patrons were. This silence was broken by the screams of the crowd as Ben Harper took the stage and the limelight. He started the show with his bellowing voice and an Amish like hat. The show was amazing, as the crowd was drenched in the light and bluesy rock of Harper and Relentless7, the tunes and Ben’s commanding voice rang out across the cool evening sand. A writhing crowd rocked out to his amazing command of the guitar and well crafted lyrics. Ben WAS the festival on the day and the crowd new it. He played his classics and new rock and the people ate it up.
Ben Harper did not fit the motif of the day’s Reggae feel really, this was the culmination of the rock music of the day, a funky mix of rock, blues, and meandering bass that intoxicated the already intoxicated. The energy was high and peaked with this show. As I left the media pit after the third song and took in the show I thought back on the day.
What was this whole thing, this West Beach Music Festival 2009? As a newcomer to the state I realized that this was the modern day ideal of ‘manifest destiny’. This was the sun-soaked American Dream that brought people to California – a day of booze, bare skin, and bands, right on the beach on the Pacific coast. This event was the quintessential California Dream that the Mommas And The Poppas recounted which causes people to roll it all up and go for broke in the ‘sunshine state’. This event was the bastion that an amalgam of pubescent teens and suburbanite baby boomers saved to buy tickets for. They wanted to take the ride and paid handsomely to do so. This event was the culmination of what non-Californians think of when they think of this place – a Reggae and rock festival on the beach in a city like Santa Barbara; a city of affluence trying to put itself on the map as a better, cleaner LA. The winner in this was the patrons; those that participated in this well organized, three day beach festival that got to partake of a fair cross section of great music, California’s finest fish tacos, and good people with which to party the day away. As a perpetual tourist this felt like my introduction to what it is to be a Californian, and if there is a festival that screams “California” louder I just can’t hear it. Bravo and encore, one can only hope that next year can match the intense good times that this year delivered on in a most Rastafarian way.
Wesley is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He is currently a contributing photographer for the VCReporter and maintains an active blog (www.wesleybauman.wordpress.com) where he writes on political and social satire regularly.