This past Saturday, thousands of music lovers of all ages and descriptions descended upon peaceful Pasadena for Day One of the 1st Annual Arroyo Seco Weekend; and after a somewhat overly-long wait for the gates to open, the pleasantly mixed crowd was released upon the green to spend a delightful day soaked in sunshine and song. As vendors and staff finished the last bits of preparation, we joined the light sprinkling of spectators headed towards the first show on the Sycamore stage.
As we approached, lilting Celtic-tinged strains of acoustic guitar, banjo, and upright bass supported a trio of female voices in close-knit harmonies entreating us to be their “…fine companion …in the canyon” – we had found Baskery. This upbeat sister act from Sweden was a sweet surprise, and a great appetizer for the day ahead. They mixed their peppy originals with covers – including an excellent rendition of Neil Young’s “Old Man” and added a dash of charming, snappy patter.
After taking in about half of their perky, pop-folk set, it was time for a bit of lunch over at one of the many rows of delicious “gastro-tents” scattered about the concourse. Along the way we were distracted some lovely music which lured us over to the Willow stage, a more intimate, covered venue, and our next happy discovery – Avery*Sunshine.
We walked up as she was finishing a story about being personally invited to sing at Aretha Franklin’s birthday party, twice, then she launched into a version of Ms. Franklin’s “Day Dreaming” that was rich and deeply soulful. She and her remarkable back-up band followed this up with her Al Green-inspired gospel hit “Won’t You Try” that morphed into a highly-unlikely, but thoroughly funky mash-up with James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and brought the house, er tent, down. “Sure feels good to me!”
At this point, the heat was upon us so we needed to find something to quench our thirst. Although there were numerous alcoholic options around us, including delicious wines and a dazzling array of craft beers, we opted for something lighter this round and filled our cups with guava kombucha and nitro-infused cold brew java. Refreshing indeed!
Heading across the bridge, we saw a massive multi-colored backdrop, reminiscent of a mid-century modern painting in front of which emerged the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, direct from New Orleans. These veteran jazz masters treated the crowd to a fresh gumbo of all the best flavors the Big Easy has to offer, from Bourbon Street swing to Basin Street boogie, and even a bit of the St.Louis Cemetery dirge. Every musical bar was beautifully arranged, and every soloist a virtuoso. Despite the now-oppressive heat, the crowd could not be held down, and was on its feet moving and shaking, happily clinging to every delicious note.
A quick stroll back across the lawn brought us again to the Sycamore stage where British blues legend John Mayall was just taking the stage with his trio. After Mr. Mayall noted that they were “the only blues band on the bill” and would “give it their best,” they launched into their set and promptly delivered on their promise. The band brought authentic, stripped-down, heartfelt blues, including a tune called “Moving on” and the serendipitously-titled “Gimme Some Gumbo.” Mayall showed his skills on guitar, as well as keyboard and harmonica, occasionally playing the last two at the same time. Double-fisted blues! This was definitely a Hall-of-fame moment with a world-class layer.
But wait…it was time to head back to the Willow stage and catch a bit of what had to be the most unexpected, and quirkiest, name on the bill, Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. Mssr Goldblum arrived in a spiffy black suit with matching fedora and skinny black tie and dove right into a bout of lively give-and-take with the audience, including true or false quizzes and bits of trivia wrapped around swinging jazz tunes delivered by his very capable ensemble and dominated by his deft piano work. This is the same act he brings to local audiences every week at Rockwell Table and Stage, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. Highlight of the set: a jazz arrangement of “American Girl” dedicated to headliner Tom Petty.
By this point, hunger was an undeniable beast in our bellies, so we grabbed some scrumptious short rib and jalapeno sliders and enjoyed a solid set by Broken Social Scene. Though not particularly my flavor, the alt-rock outfit had plenty of people shaking it in the sunshine, and performed their material with skill and sincerity.
Now, the time had arrived for what was one of my primary reasons for attending – the appearance of Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires. Although he’s been recording and touring for over a decade, Bradley’s revivalist sound of authentic 60s funky soul is really catching fire and has recently been included in soundtracks for TV project like “Suits,” “Ray Donovan” and “Luke Cage” – as well as a documentary “Soul of America.” Following a heartfelt and remarkably tender introduction by a bandmate, “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” swooped onto the stage and dropped the most intense package of funky sweet soul directly onto the audiences fully-blown minds.
Still recovering from a recent bout with stomach cancer, Mr Bradley humbly thanked his audience for their support throughout his illness, and dedicated his show to “the love that binds us all.” Tough and tender, the sexagenarian soul master then pounded the crowd with funky body blows like “Where do We Go From Here” and “Ain’t it a Sin” and followed up with sweet sonic caresses like “Strictly Reserved for You” and “Changes,” his amazing reinvention of the Sabbath single. I heard crowd members spontaneously breaking into the refrain long after the show was done.
A bit shagged from the heat and frivolity, we found a nice little hillock some distance from the Oaks stage but still in view of the massive video screens and well within earshot, and enjoyed the astonishing talent of Alabama Shakes. Suffice it to say this act deserves every ounce of its fame. Hands down.
After resting our weary feet for a bit, we headed back to catch the closing act on the Sycamore stage – The Meters. We were still some distance away when the lights came up, and all soul broke out. It was truly a “Come to Funky Jesus” moment as this legendary band tore it up for good. There was not a single body standing still as The Original Funkmasters wove their intricate rhythmic web and wrapped us all up in the grooves of classics like “Fire on the Bayou,” “Cissy Strut,” and their wicked reworking of the Beatles’ “Come Together” – with an added horn section riff that took that tune to the stratosphere. Like a fine cheese, this band has gotten more funky, and delicious, with age. After fifty minutes of full-tilt musical mastery, he band had worked their “Funky Miracle,” and we left with our lives fully Funkified.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers closed the day with this stop on their 40th Anniversary Tour. Petty took the stage and, to the delight of the crowd, promised a “100% Rock and Roll Show.” To tell the truth, by this time we were well and truly bone-weary, and chose to enjoy his set from the relative comfort of a rickety picnic bench adjacent to our previous hillock. I’ll just say he sounded great, and the band delivered his signature tracks with punch and precision to the obvious pleasure of all in attendance.
This first round of the Arroyo Seco Weekend’s freshman outing provided an outstanding array of talent, too much to all be taken in by one pair of ears – truly an embarrassment of riches! The promoters have signed a 10-year agreement with the city with an option to extend beyond. If things continue at this rate, we’ve got us a winner, and right here in our own front yard!
Festival photography by Alex Huggan alexhuggan.com
Additional images Caren Spitler