If you went into the second annual Arroyo Seco Weekend expecting a more conveniently located Coachella, you were bound for disappointment. Not that you would’ve been entirely mistaken for expecting a replica. The art, the signage, the colors and fonts on the marketing materials, even the mountains surrounding the festival grounds—all of it evoked at least a superficial resemblance to Goldenvoice’s flagship event because, well, Goldenvoice is also responsible for Arroyo Seco. But this newer addition to the warm-weather concert circuit stands apart from its desert counterpart—and not just because Arroyo Seco is one weekend instead of two, and two days rather than three.
This year, Brookside at the Rose Bowl hosted plenty of artists who have left their imprint on the Empire Polo Fields. Jack White, who’s played Coachella at seemingly every step of his expansive career, trotted out tracks from the White Stripes, the Dead Weather, the Raconteurs and, of course, his solo albums at the Oaks on Saturday. Kings of Leon, who made their Coachella debut in 2007, closed out Arroyo Seco on the festival’s main stage on Sunday night. Folks who trekked out to Indio back in 2006 would’ve felt right at home at Seu Jorge’s set, those who made it in 2016 would’ve been pleased to see Gary Clark Jr. still melting faces in Pasadena, and those who did it this past April would’ve appreciated Kamasi Washington taking his new album, Heaven and Earth, out for a stroll just two months later.
Where these artists might’ve looked like anomalies these days at Coachella—where pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music have become the order of the day—they hewed more closely to the core of Arroyo Seco’s more specific stylistic leanings. Not that Arroyo Seco Weekend was devoid of top-40 favorites. Capital Cities thrilled the crowd at the Sycamore stage with their standard, “Safe and Sound,” on Sunday. Third Eye Blind followed up on the very same stage with a slew of ‘90s hits, none bigger (or more infectious) than “Semi-Charmed Kind of LIfe.”
By and large, though, what constituted pop at Arroyo Seco was entirely different from Coachella. The depth and breadth of popular music on offer in the San Gabriel Valley was far more retrospective, if not downright nostalgic.
That’s what got folks out of their seats and onto their feet for the Bangles and the Revolution, sadly without Prince. It’s what drew the masses to rock out to Robert Plant, as much for his Led Zeppelin classic as his fresher work with the Sensational Space Shifters. It’s also what attracted so many to sway to Neil Young and the Promise of the Real, even amid a jammier, less focused set.
And, truth be told, those same forces were at play for the Pretenders and Alanis Morissette, Los Lobos and North Mississippi All-Stars. They attracted curious observers to the expert saxophone of Pharoah Sanders, the crooning standards of Aaron Neville and the blistering sounds of Violent Femmes.
Where Coachella is typically teeming with newer, up-and-coming artists to support its headlining megastars, Arroyo Seco offered mostly lesser-known acts—from Fantastic Negrito and Typhoon to Trampled by Turtles and Hurray for the Riff Raff—that have been hustling for years, only to recently realize more than a modicum of success.
All of that, along with the easily traversable grounds and wealth of largely local food and beverage options, seemed to suit the audience just fine. The switch in lineups from Indio to Pasadena brought with it a noticeable (if not obvious) shift in audience demographics. The global panoply of Coachella’s predominantly younger patrons gave way to a decidedly lighter-skinned crowd, filled with children whose ears were (mostly) adorned with protective ear covers, when they weren’t being regaled with tales of NASA’s new-age outreach at an installation set up by the space agency.
However that makeup strikes you in 2018, it wasn’t at all unexpected given the sonic selection. Nor did it take away from the enjoyment therein.
The narrower band of artists and visitors affirmed Arroyo Seco Weekend’s standing as a distinct product on the festival scene. It may never rise to the size and scope of Coachella, but where a big-tent production like FYF folded under a flood of widely eclectic competitors in the western U.S., Arroyo Seco stands a fighting chance of survival, by filling a specific niche for festival goers who generally skew older, whiter and less willing to trip out to the desert.