Sunny Santa Monica, California. The weather is always perfect and Happy Hour is from noon to seven every day. This idyllic suburb of Los Angeles was the perfect place to host an early fall music festival, and the folks who put on the Newport Folk Fest every year took full advantage. Moving it out west allowed some folks who may never have the opportunity to see some of these artists play in their area otherwise. The lineup was incredible, and the tickets were reasonably priced considering the location and what you would pay for a similar concert if it were put on by C3 (Lollapalooza/ACL). Two days filled with great music and a carnival atmosphere? Sign me up!
We got into town late Friday night, around 9pm. It was dark, but still in the mid-60’s. Everything was lit up as we walked from our bus stop past the Third Street Promenade and up toward Ocean Avenue where our hotel was located. We stayed at the lovely and haunted Georgian Hotel. It has a rich history as the first speakeasy in the Los Angeles area. It’s also where Carole Lombard would meet Clark Gable during their affair. It still holds some of its Hollywood charm, and as soon as I turned the corner toward the hotel I saw none other than Wayne Brady eating dinner at the restaurant next door. Not quite as exciting as seeing LeBron James or NPH, but still kinda cool.
We got up early, but not too early, on Saturday morning and headed down to the lobby to grab a table for breakfast. The Georgian has a beautiful veranda that looks out at a great view of the ocean and mountains that surround the city. One omelet and french toast souffle later, and we were off to the Pier to check things out. Technically doors weren’t until 1, and we got there around 11am, so we had some time to kill. We picked up our wristbands from the people setting up and heard Neko Case soundcheck a little bit while we searched for a place to get ice cream. The weekend just happened to be the hottest of the year in Santa Monica. 88 degrees both days of the festival, but we didn’t let that stop us. It didn’t take long before we found the area where you could get pretty much anything: Ice cream, funnel cakes, corn dogs, cotton candy…everything a 30-year-old person could want.
We hung out for a while before deciding to head back to the hotel and catch some college football before Shovels & Rope started at 3. With the early bird Folk Kin tickets we bought, I knew we could get a good spot for the show regardless of when we showed up. When we got back there was a good crowd but not too many people. The VIP section where we were headed was fairly empty and there were seats along the back where the gate divided it from the rest of the audience. We sat down and took in Michael and Cary Ann’s set. They’re so much better live than on record. I’m not sure how that happens, but the energy is much higher if you see them in concert. They played a handful of songs, many of them new (a great omen of things to come during the festival), and rocked a little harder than you’d expect at a folk festival.
Justin Townes Earle was next, and I stood up and made my way up to the front. Around this time I started to notice just how many photographers were hanging around. Once Justin Townes Earle started they all rushed to the front, in front of all the people who paid good money to be closer to the stage. This was my one point of consternation throughout the two days. It would be one thing if there was a solid two or three song limit for photographers to get their shots (as is customary at most shows), but there were guys-and girls-with huge zoom lenses standing in front of short people for the duration of sets. They either need to have a separate area for people with photo passes or enforce the rules better.
Earle had a lot of problems during his set. He played a ton of new songs, but the vocals were so muddy and quiet you could barely hear his voice most of the time. And when you could hear him, it was often mumbled. It seemed like maybe he didn’t remember all the words, or he was just getting frustrated because he couldn’t hear himself. I heard him say to his guitar player that he couldn’t hear anything, so it’s probably the latter. Enjoyable set either way, as his band is pretty fantastic.
We had made plans to meet some people for drinks during the sets between Earle and Neko Case’s headlining spot. We made our way back up the steep ramp that leads to the pier and headed for The Misfit Bar. A little loud, a lot dark, and a lot of good food. I wasn’t entirely filled up by my prime rib sliders (on Hawaiian bread), but they were ridiculously tasty. I’d never met or talked to any of these people before, but one of them went to Notre Dame so it was all good in my book. We hung out there for a while-I had two Cokes with Chairman’s Reserve Rum from St. Lucia (apparently you can’t buy it in the States), and they were pretty heavy so it was a good thing we were eating a bunch.
We got back down to the pier and it was already dusk. I was able to get right up front with my fancy wristband, and I was ready to go. The band came out and I didn’t realize that Kelly Hogan was going to be there with Neko, but there she was. They joke around a ton on stage. There was a loud humming that came out of the front monitor and Neko said “Sorry that was my balls.” And Kelly quickly added, “That was all of our balls.” Much was said about churros and werewolves in between songs. The set covered pretty much her whole career from beginning to present and lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. Surprisingly there was no encore.
We walked back up to the hotel and I was still a bit peckish so we decided to grab a quick dinner back on the veranda. We were getting close when who should pass us but VING RHAMES! That’s right, Mr. Marcellus Wallace himself! I didn’t say anything to him, which I immediately regretted. How many times in your life do you get to talk to the guy who won a Golden Globe for playing Don King (still one of my favorite lines of all-time comes from Don King: Only In America when Rhames is talking to a guy in the bathroom-he washes his hands and then uses the urinal, after which his conversation partner asks if he’s gonna wash his hands and he says “I wash my hands BEFORE I touch my dick“)? Anyway, we got back to the hotel and I had a penne pasta that was amazing.
Here’s the weirdest thing about being on the west coast-you wake up Sunday morning at, say, 9. The Fox pregame is already on. Most of the NFL games start at 10 in the morning there, so we just chilled and watched the Bears and Saints play. The Felice Brothers were the first band I felt like I HAD to see, so we headed over to a place called Umami Burger based on a recommendation we got. Holy crap! They have locations in a few other cities, so look it up and see if you’re one of the lucky ones. Definitely one of the better burger places I’ve ever been to. I had the “Manly Burger,” which was just grass-fed angus beef, beer cheese, bacon, and onion. Fairly basic, but extremely delicious. Kari got a “Truffle Burger.” They use some kind of truffle cheese on it and a truffle sauce. It was pretty out of this world. Onion Rings were pretty blah, but they had Coke in a bottle so I didn’t care.
By the time we made it down to the pier The Felice Brothers were setting up. I hung out next to the stage just looking around and watching them get their gear ready. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone standing on the other side of the stage from me, where the bands come up. Oh my God! It was Jackson Browne!!! He wasn’t listed as a performer for the festival, but he played with Jonathan Wilson. I didn’t get to see him play, but I caught him chatting to one of the festival promoters. I doubt they played anything from Late For The Sky, so I’m not too upset-that burger was worth it.
The Felice Brothers started and I was immediately reminded why they’re one of my favorite bands. They played a mix of old and very new. One song Ian said he had just written and was about Cherry Liquorice-his favorite food. He started singing “All I wanna eat is cherry liquorice, even if it sounds ridickless.” I just smiled from ear to ear and listened to this completely absurd song. James sat at the keyboard for the first half of the set, then got up and played accordion for the second half. He complained about how it was so bright that he couldn’t see anyone in the crowd, so a woman gave him her sunglasses for the rest of their set. They played another new song called “Some Say” that they’ve been doing a lot lately. It’s a great one. They also did a great version of “Penn Station” that killed and left the crowd clamoring for more.
First Aid Kit was up after Felice Brothers, and it was like a Team Love road show-during Felice’s set I saw Conor Oberst hanging out just off stage and both Klara and Johanna Soderberg stopped by to take a listen. The girls came out with Mike Mogis on mandolin and played mostly the songs they’ve been touring behind for the last two years. They did play a new one called “Waitress Song” that was really good. They seemed excited to be at the fest, and reunited with their mentor Oberst. I couldn’t stay for the whole set because over in the Carousel Hurray For The Riff Raff was doing an overlapping time.
We got over to the Carousel as the previous band was finishing up. Alynda Lee and the rest of the Riff Raff got set up and launched into a couple pretty songs. Alynda opened alone with “The New San Francisco Bay Blues,” and then the band joined her for “Blue Ridge Mountain.” By the time they got through “Look Out Mama” it was already time to head back so we could get a good spot for Conor’s show.
Surprisingly, we were able to get really close even with the sea of photographers in front. The Felice Brothers played as Conor’s backing band, and both Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott performed as well. So basically it was Bright Eyes and The Felice Brothers doing like a Dylan and The Band kinda thing. A couple songs into the set Conor called on First Aid Kit to join the fun, and there was too much talent on the stage to even comprehend. Conor said he was told to play folk songs, so they didn’t get into any of the rowdier music like “Roosevelt Room,” but he did play “Well Whiskey,” “Four Winds,” and “Soul Singer In A Session Band,” so it wasn’t all quiet songs.
The highlight of the set, for me anyway, was actually toward the end when they did Felice Brothers song “White Limo.” It’s such a great song, and having Ian and Conor do the vocals together was exceptional. This was my 4th time seeing Oberst, and the 4th different version-I’ve seen him with Bright Eyes, with The Mystic Valley Band, and solo. Having The Felice Brothers on stage with him helped push this show over the top as the best Conor show I’ve seen. Having First Aid Kit sing on “Lua,” “No One Would Riot For Less,” and “Laura Laurent” certainly didn’t hurt.
Way Over Yonder might be my new favorite festival. The “bro” factor doesn’t come anywhere near what you’ll find at other big fests, and the crowd wasn’t nearly as drunk or rude as most I’ve encountered. There’s always one bad apple-in this case a girl from Atlanta who wouldn’t shut up through every set and kept telling the security guard that she would wait until the last song to jump on stage (she had been kicked out two weeks earlier for the same violation). Even she couldn’t stop the good times, though. If you plan on attending next year, and I definitely think you should, I highly recommend getting the “Folk Kin” package. Not only do you get to be closer to the stage, there’s also an exclusive bar with rocking chairs, a foosball table, and ping pong.
Plus maybe you’ll get to meet Ving Rhames!
I took a bunch of pics even though I didn’t have a photo pass-on my iPhone, of course. The Oberst pics aren’t great, but I think the rest of them came out pretty good. You can see them all here.