DeLuna Fest 2011: America's Original Beach Party Returns to the Gulf Coast

Dennis Shin
Photo Credits: Mark C. Austin

When it comes to location, Pensacola Beach is one of the most unique destinations for a music festival. It helped ensure the second year of DeLuna Fest was a logistic and artistic success.

DeLuna Festival

City: Pensacola, FL
Venue: Pensacola Beach

Perry Farrell, a man who knows his festivals, took stock of his surroundings, the Gulf of Mexico off to his left and an exuberant crowd spread out before him on the sand. “This is the best kept secret in America. A party on the beach? Why didn’t you invite us before now?”, he sniffs, half- jokingly. Pacing left, then right, he exclaims: “This is hot man. Next time you’re looking for a band from the underground man, call us! ”Perry was but one of many artists caught up in the moment, some inspired to acts of spontaneity. On opening night, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, to the disbelief of locals, leads fans onto the federally protected sand dunes, a widely known taboo. The stunt ends quickly, as law enforcement is quick to shine a spotlight on him and order him out, while dragging fans away in handcuffs. On the last day, it’s Mike Jollett of the Airborne Toxic Event, declaring during the set how much he’d like to jump in the Gulf of Mexico, also strictly prohibited during the festival. At the end of the set, he shocks everyone by jumping off stage, tearing off his boots, and making a mad dash for the water, fans and bandmates in tow. This time, the offense draws a bemused reaction from security. Perry Farrell, aside from demanding, and then proceeding to joust with a glow in the dark light saber, takes a more pragmatic approach to fan bonding, wading into the audience and then sitting at the edge of the stage to share some wine as the show closes to “Jane Says”.

In its second year, the DeLuna Festival, billing itself as “America’s Original Beach Party”, increased its ambition, expanding its footprint on Pensacola Beach and more than doubling the bands from 34 to over 80. Held the second weekend in October, the festival’s unique setting attracted NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly, which ran a full week of musical highlights. Across the board, artists and fans that trekked out to the beach front for a three day festival marking the end of the outdoor concert season were nearly unanimous in praise. So what’s to like?

Start with a brilliantly conceived layout that places the two main stages at either ends of Pensacola beach, yards from the Gulf of Mexico. The remaining three stages were scattered across parking lots within a fairly compact complex, mere steps from a cluster of four hotels that made up the festival grounds. The primary commute, between the two big stages, could be managed in under five minutes at full gallop, not counting the wear and tear of the sand, but compensated by the scenery of the Gulf beachfront. After some practice, trips between stages could be shortened by bobbing and weaving through a unique labyrinth of hotel lobbies, tiki huts, arts and crafts booths, and mom and pop food stands (Philly cheese steak in a sack anyone? ).

Veterans of music festivals who perhaps crave the opportunity to hose off by midday, and cranks who avoid outdoor festivals altogether take note: a cabana nap, a dip in the pool, or a hasty retreat to beachside watering holes are all within reach.

Yet, despite its unique setting, attendance at the 2012 DeLuna Festival was disappointing, driven by a soft economy and the last-minute cancellation of headliner Linkin Park. Artistically, local organizers Five Flags Tourism Group could be commended for taking an ambitious gamble, increasing both the number and profile of bands. But by doubling the price of weekend tickets from $90 to $200, the organizers may have misread market demand for a destination festival well past Labor Day, at a time when the Gulf of Mexico is in the throes of recovery from the BP spill. Expecting as many as 50,000 for the weekend, attendance appeared to fall well short.

While the $200 ticket price is in line with similarly sized festivals, regional demand for a destination music festival may have been tapped out by events such as the Hangout Music Festival in May in Gulf Shores, Alabama (an advance sellout of 35,000), and the upcoming debut of Orlando Calling (organized by Festival Republic, which runs European megafestivals Glastonbury and Reading) weeks later. The increase in ticket prices was undoubtedly sticker shock for local residents, accustomed to more economical options, such as the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival in Niceville, Florida and community oriented events. The last minute cancellation by Sunday headliners Linkin Park also hurt. Unable to find a last- minute replacement, Five Flags generously offered full refunds, or two-for-one entry to advance ticket holders. Several local merchants and traveling vendors chafed at the disappointing through traffic, with one vendor estimating traffic to be roughly 1/4 of their expectations.

Attendance aside, the DeLuna Festival was a tremendous success artistically and logistically. The artists as a whole didn’t seem to mind, for many the festival represented an opportunity to hit a part of the country that gets overlooked on national tours. Smaller crowds also translated into a more intimate setting to see first rate artists. The main stages blended a collection of bands who came of age in the 1990s -- Jane’s Addiction, Weezer, and Cake, with more recent indie favorites such as the Shins, the Cold War Kids and Manchester Orchestra. Bands reveled in the unique environment and laidback vibe of the audience. Jane’s Addiction mixed debuts of several new songs off their latest album, the Great Escape Artist, with old standards “Just Because”, “Mountain Song”, “Been Caught Stealing” and “Stop”, attracting one of the more diverse crowds, mixing concert veterans who recall the first Lollapalooza with teens.

Perry was the showman throughout, whether hamming it up on stage with go-go dancers, playing the part of carnival barker for the guitar wizardry of Dave Navarro, or good naturedly declaring himself a 52-year old showbiz legend deserving respect, after someone threw a sandal on stage.

Audience good will was in abundance during Weezer’s set, the large shining “W” serving as a beacon for an overflow audience, as the band played its best known hits and some surprising covers. Rivers mentions that they heard a song on the radio that they loved, so now were going to play it, before launching into Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”. Later they take a stab at Radiohead’s "Paranoid Android". Rivers’ pied piper hold on the fans goes a bit too far with the ill-advised foray into the sand dunes, as an unfortunate handful of fans getting dragged out of the area in handcuffs, receiving a scolding from Escambia County’s finest before being let go.

With the air of civil disobedience in the air, it was surprising then, when Mikel of Airborne Toxic Event followed through on his pre-announced intention to dive into the Gulf. A no-swimming ban was in effect for the weekend, not so much for safety as to prevent potential festival crashers from disembarking at an adjacent beach and then swimming their way into the festival. So how was this “no he didn’t” moment different? Did Mikel plan this, perhaps coordinating with security? Nope, a spontaneous decision says guitarist Steven Chen. “We first learned about it when he announced it on stage”. Nevertheless, the mad dash to the water results in no consequences for the 50 or so fans that dive in after and mob the band.

ATE had the good fortune of playing on the west-facing Wind Creek stage: signature hits “Wishing Well” and “Sometime Around Midnight” fortuitously came on sometime around sunset, appropriate for the Silverlake band that made their mark locally somewhere around sunset.

Aside from the parade of indie artists one expects to see at major festivals, DeLuna presented a diverse range of artists in a relatively intimate environment.

Superstar DJ Diplo and Big Boi, well attired in fatigues, played crowd pleasing day sets that mixed in well with the light mood by day, while Matt and Kim were a nice transition to night, pulling a card out of their bag of audience participation tricks, getting the eager crowd to help with a balloon launch.

By night, DeLuna turned festive thanks to a late arriving crowd: clear sight lines and a warm Gulf breeze made beach chairs a popular vista point. Unlike festivals such as Lollapalooza that are staged in urban parks, mandating all-ages friendly curfews that create space for after- parties, DeLuna, like Bonnaroo, is its own after-party with final sets running past 1 am. This is a boon for fans of electronic music. While other major festivals are forced to fit electronic acts into ill-suited afternoon slots under a baking sun, the longer run time at DeLuna allows for DJs and electronica oriented indie acts to play into the evening.

Cut Copy sets up the Sunday night headliner on one of the main stages, demonstrating their growing appeal by doing what few other artists dared, blowing past the stop sign of their scheduled set end time. Seeing the good natured Aussies make the leap from a smaller stage at Pitchfork, as they humbly introduce themselves to first time audiences is a treat, as is the ensemble drumming on display here.

Girl Talk and Ghostland Observatory keep main stage crowds hopping into the night and demonstrate the glory of providing DJs with access to the full throttle acoustics of a mainstage. (A plea to future DeLuna programmers: take artists like Animal Collective and XX, relegated to midday slots at some other major festivals, and have them close down Wind Creek at night!) A takeaway image for marketers billing DeLuna as America’s Original Beach party will likely be a clip of Girl Talk, surrounded on stage by admirers while playing condensed versions of his mashups.

The telltale sign of Girl Talk’s presence were seeing the bits of confetti and toilet paper from the previous night’s sets embedded in the sand the next afternoon. A news report would note, with some relief, that the confetti was biodegradable and would not represent an added danger to an already stressed ecosystem.

The dance oriented Grooveshark stage provided a club like environment, in of all places, a parking lot buffeted by food stands, for raucous late night DJ sets by the Hood Internet and A-Trak, and a transcendent set by Ladytron. While Ladytron has sampled many genres over the course of their career, the band has gone back to basics with its 2011 release, Gravity the Seducer, veering away from hook laden tracks in favor of a more atmospheric sound. While Ladytron’s set provides their fans with a satisfying mix of their hits, the band shoots out of the gate with Ritual, one of the year’s more haunting tracks, immediately signaling the band’s new direction.

Electro-synth duo the Limousines gain plenty of new converts with a pulsating afternoon set, including a cover of New Order’s "Temptation". Given the ubiquity of “Very Busy People”, their breakout alternative radio hit in 2009, it’s hard to believe that this is the band’s first visit to the area, and only their second major tour of the US.

DeLuna featured several inspired bookings. Fans of Kevin Devine and musical comrades the Manchester Orchestra had the rare opportunity to catch them three times in a single day.

Kevin got the day started, while Manchester Orchestra delivered one of the most passionate and intense sets of the festival, an evening set on the main stage featuring songs from Simple Math, a personal memoir by Manchester’s Andy Hull lauded as one of the most emotionally direct releases of the year. In between, Bad Books featured Kevin and Andy trading off leads and engaging in light-hearted banter. At one point, Kevin playing the part of responsible stage host, lobs a bottle of water into the audience. In contrast to the hose downs you see at Pitchfork, this act of charity goes unheeded: the bottle lands harmlessly at the feet of a couple of loose patches of fans, which no one bothers to stoop down to collect.

Linkin Park’s absence was clearly felt. The main stages were significantly more roomy on Sunday. But Linkin Park’s cancellation allowed for some deft maneuvering by organizers. Many fans took the cue of Cowboy Mouth drummer Fred LeBlanc, who bellowed “Who is this Lincoln Hall?”, questioning the commotion. Wanda Jackson, instead of playing alongside Trombone Shorty and Matt and Kim, moved into a less active slot on Sunday. The most inspired switch was the elevation of New Orleans band MUTEMATH, an underground favorite, into the headline slot vacated by Linkin Park. While the band has thrived in a club-like setting, the band asserted their readiness in a pre-show interview, noting that they always tended to create a “larger than life” sound bigger than the stages they were accustomed to playing. MUTEMATH ran with the opportunity, showcasing their lyrical depth, versatility and percussion oriented pyrotechnics, including lead singer and keyboardist Paul Meany doing handstands on his piano, and band members trading off instruments.

Ensemble drumming and on your back instrumental finales may be de rigueur indie poses. But drummer Darren King, situated at the front of the stage for the whole set, is joined by his bandmates for a percussive assault reminiscent of a Blue Man Group finale, sans blue face paint and toilet paper. In this clip, the band channels their inner Black Keys, with an exuberance seemingly suited for a Muse-like leap to the next level, should the band decide to accept this mission.

While attendance picked up in the evening, day crowds remained light. The lower overall crowd density was in part by design: organizers added stages and expanded the footprint of the festival to provide festival goers with more choices and to improve crowd flow. The intimacy was a special opportunity to catch the roots oriented acts and buzz bands on smaller stages.

The festival played up Pensacola’s proximity along the gulf coast to New Orleans, with a stage featuring blues, R&B, and soul acts. Trombone Shorty delivered a knockout punch on the first day, leading his ensemble through a whopper of a Friday happy hour set that owing to the late arriving first day crowd, was delivered before a handful of fans, and not the packed hall the band encounters on tour. This didn’t dull the exuberance of Shorty and his bandmates, whose set included a cover of Nirvana’s "In Bloom" or the joy of the crowd at experiencing the band in an intimate environment.

Blues and soul legend Bettye LaVette, in true professional style, crooned to each and every fan in attendance, in this instance, about a dozen core fans. Giving witness to the old showbiz adage about the need to reach out to all, even if it’s an audience of one, perched at the front of the stage was a solitary young admirer, emoting to every word of every song. Her impassioned vocals won her the attention of a ring of new fans, passersby on the fringes, drawn in by inspired covers of two of her inspirations, George Jones and Ray Charles, from her 2007 Grammy nominated album, Scene of the Crime.

She noted wryly that festival organizers should think twice before booking an old-timer like her on a stage that faced directly into the southern sky during the sun’s afternoon peak. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears delivered a scorching roots set, while another shade of Louisiana arrived in the form of indie buzz band the Givers.

The festival curators did a splendid job of assembling some of the most intriguing breakout acts of 2011, making use of the more accessible smaller stages. The Grooveshark could have doubled as a mini-Pitchfork. Grouplove’s high energy style whipped the crowd into a fervor, channeling the friends and family vibe of an Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros or George Clinton and P-Funk gig, at a spirited early evening set on Sunday.

Daniel Blue’s story of dealing with loss by plowing himself into songwriting, in the process setting aside a career in fashion, is one of the more inspirational stories of the year, and his band Motopony is a well-deserved buzz band. The band discovers the hazards of ambitious booking: having a day slot after playing the night before in Montreal is challenging enough. But when their airlines impounds their equipment in Miami, the band is faced with a sleepless night and the possibility of having to cancel a highly anticipated show date. Thankfully, the band cobbles together equipment for their show, a herculean effort that wins them appreciation from the locals, including a new female admirer who turns to me to relay a brew to the bass player, given my advantageous press pit perch. I’m more than happy to oblige a well deserving artist. Quiet Company, a breakout band from Austin, will find the company not so quiet on the strength of their 2011 release, We Are All Where We Belong, one of the more ambitious releases of the year, a contemplative conversation on faith, contrasting with the band’s upbeat and lively stage demeanor, with the band nattily attired in suits. Two other emerging artists, London-based Still Corners, the inspiration of American expat and European film buff Greg Hughes, and Sleeper Agent, a lively collective from Kentucky, offer a glimpse of their promise; each would go on to generate buzz at CMJ the following week. Two of the more energetic outings included sets by Nico Vega, and San Francisco roots rockers the Stone Foxes. The buzzed about War on Drugs and Constellation both leave their mark. In the companion section to this story, we will spotlight some of the emerging artists, including brief profiles and interviews with the artists.

Equally accessible are mainstage sets by more established indie artists. Ra Ra Riot’s Caribbean tinged sound, reminiscent of Vampire Weekend, has a particular resonance in a mid-day set framed by the clear blue waters of the Gulf to the right. Veteran rockers Asobi Seksu, like Motopony, deal with equipment issues, in this instance a non-functioning keyboard. Lead singer Yuki Chikudate deftly works around the hulking shell, delivering a bootleg-like rarity, a set bereft of her pre-programmed traditional keyboard parts. The veterans win over new fans with an afternoon set showcasing their lush, appealing shoegaze sound. More signs of the festival’s diversity include Swedish veterans the Sounds, another in Canadian indie pop stars, the appropriately named Stars, and the buzzed about Parlotones from South Africa.

Assuming future artists resist the temptation to play in the Florida dunes, more magic moments await. Perhaps DeLuna’s ambition in scaling up in only its second year, when others might have been inclined, particularly in a down economy, to build awareness incrementally for an off-season destination festival, should serve as a cautionary tale. But if the organizers can find a way to make it all work, continuing to book compelling emerging artists for the small stages, keeping crowd flow manageable, DeLuna’s future should be bright.

Few festival organizers can match DeLuna for location. Few experiences can match the harmonies and tight-knit community feel of the New Pornographers, against the backdrop of a sun setting into the Western horizon.

And that was something which artists, whether on stage, or in interviews, keep getting back to: the unique setting, the beautiful vista, and the laid back vibe of the DeLuna festival crowd. The festival organizers played into a “summer last’s stand” theme, attracting artists who normally might not get to the region at this time of the year.

For many artists, the reality is a recognition that conditions remain tough for touring in general. In the midst of go-go dancers and guitar pyrotechnics of Dave Navarro, Perry turned contemplative, reflecting on how tough life has become for many out there. “You get these desperate Facebook messages. I’ll say I had a nice lunch in Pensacola, (and someone will write), 'well you’re lucky you have f’in lunch, you f'. So I get to know how people are feeling out there in the country right now, it’s tough. But let me tell you, this is the best part of life right here. I know it’s tough for everybody. We’re holed up, but we are here, on the beach in Pensacola. You gotta count yourselves lucky”. From a veteran like Perry, his comment was much about the band’s good fortune of being able to still be play with old friends, decades after their initial breakup, as it was about being on a beach in October.

Hopefully, DeLuna will be poised to stick around for the long haul. After only its second season, organizers still have 40 plus years to tweak the concept some, before what should be a lively celebration of Pensacola’s 500th anniversary in 2059. In the meantime, music fans who straggled in late should take note. You’re missing some great emerging artists, and unlike other outdoor festivals, where avoiding the midday sun is a priority, listen to those British mods who crooned “the beach is the place where a man can feel…”. What better way to spend an afternoon than on the sand, listening to the likes of Ra Ra Riot or Trombone Shorty? As for the rest, both grizzled music fest veterans who sleep out of their van, and those who, overwhelmed by the excess, have avoided large outdoor festivals altogether, keep your weekends free in October 2012. DeLuna Festival is an experience not to be missed!





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