It’s a typically balmy Friday afternoon in Redondo Beach here on the first weekend of May as a brand new event gives Southern California a head start on festival season. The sun is shining, the ocean breeze is blowing and three days of music curated for the laid back SoCal lifestyle here at Redondo Beach’s Seaside Lagoon awaits. The BeachLife Festival is in fact billed as “the only Los Angeles festival of this record-breaking scale at one of the city’s most famed beaches”.
BeachLife isn’t really trying to compete with bigger festivals like Bottlerock, Outside Lands, Austin City Limits, or Lollapalooza though. They’ve got three genuine music legends as headliners but festival capacity is in the 10,000-12,000 range, keeping the vibe relatively intimate and the crowd size from overwhelming the area. But the concept of a weekend-long festival of this size at a beach in LA County is something fresh and new.
Those who aren’t able to arrive until close to 4:00 pm start their weekend off with renowned British reggae band Steel Pulse, who lay down an irie set at the Low Tide Stage that is in fact on the beach. You can’t quite see the ocean since fences are set up to block free viewing, but you can feel the ocean breeze and that’s still pretty nice. Hitting the tour trail in advance of their new album Mass Manipulation, Steel Pulse continues to carry on the noble reggae tradition of combining feel good grooves with boldly subversive lyrics singing out for social justice in this world gone mad.
BeachLife shifts into high gear for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd at 5:00 pm when As the Crow Flies hits the High Tide Stage for a 75-minute set of Black Crowes classics led by inimitable singer Chris Robinson. The band comes out blazing with a “Remedy” opener that gets BeachLife rocking like it’s the early ’90s again and it feels so good. The lineup is not quite the same as Robinson toured with in 2018, with Jackie Greene and Benji Shanks stepping in on guitars and Joel Rabinow on keyboards. But they’ve still got the same rhythm section with Tony “The Big Ravioli” Leone on drums and Andy Hess on bass, keeping the grooves rock solid.
The Black Crowes’ repertoire shines here with a late 20th century zeitgeist that combines the band’s classic rock influences with Robinson’s pioneering Gen-X leadership in helping foment the modern jamrock movement. The set features one infectious Crowes rocker after another with “Sting Me”, “Hotel Illness”, and “Twice as Hard” turning BeachLife into a genuine dance party, while ballads like “Seeing Things” and “She Talks to Angels” provide gospel-tinged blues breathers that sound great with that Pacific Ocean breeze wafting in.
“This next song, when I wrote this song, marijuana was illegal in this state, you know? So now this song is just about shitty weed ok?” Robinson jokes to introduce the groovy “High Head Blues”. Classic jam vehicle “Wiser Time” provides the set’s peak moment as the band stretches out on the mystical jam about how great rock ‘n’ roll can part the seas on a good day, even though the quest for improv magic sometimes leads to glory beyond reach on a bad day. The band brings the set to a rousing conclusion with “Jealous Again” and a smoking “Hard to Handle” that segues into a scintillating cover of Deep Purple’s “Hush”.
The good times keep rolling over on the Low Tide Stage with Slightly Stoopid breaking out their acoustic guitars for a laid back yet groovy “Acoustic Roots” set. The band’s patented reggae rock sound seems tailor made for BeachLife, with their horn section boosting the festive vibe. The band switches gears into electric mode when special guest Bob Weir sits in for a crowd-pleasing “Franklin’s Tower”, as well as a tribute to Tom Petty with “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. Another special guest joins the fun toward the end of the set as Chali 2na from Jurassic 5 adds his hip-hop vocal stylings to the mix, culminating in an inspiring version of “Express Yourself” to end the set with a big finish.
When Bob Weir and Wolf Bros hit the High Tide Stage for Friday evening’s headlining set at 7:30 pm, the sun is just starting to set as the trio kicks things off with Grateful Dead fan favorites “Jack Straw” and “Cassidy”. The 71-year-old Weir is still touring large venues with Dead & Company, but this trio project launched in the fall of 2018 gives the counterculture trailblazer a chance to strip the songs down to their core to reveal a bluesy sonic gravitas that lets the material shine in a revealing new light.
“We’re gonna get this stuff all working sooner or later,” Weir says as he seems to have a bit of trouble with his acoustic guitar after “Peggy-O”. It turns out to be sooner as he leads a majestic reading of “Me and Bobby McGee” that sparkles in a way which tingles the senses. Something clicks from the moment drummer Jay Lane starts the beat, with Don Was locking in the groove on his upright bass as Weir plays the song in an inventive way blending chording and melody as close to just exactly perfect as can be to demonstrate what an ace guitarist he really is. When Weir sings, “From the Kentucky coal mine to the California sun, there Bobby shared the secrets of my soul,” the audience lets out a huge cheer since the song sounds extra special tonight under the stars by the California coast.
“He’s part Segovia and part John Lee Hooker, and he does both simultaneously—this exotic blend of the raw and the cerebral. He obliterates the lines between rhythm guitar and lead guitar,” Was told GQ in a recent profile of Weir. “He doesn’t just bash out chords—his rhythm parts are really melodic, so they also serve as lead parts. Sometimes I think there’s a second guitarist sitting in, because he can also play separate lead lines and rhythm parts at the same time.”
“The Other One” features the man affectionately known as “the Weirwolf” on one of his earliest proto-psychedelic classics, while “Standing on the Moon” finds Weir’s electric guitar work shimmering in fresh fashion as he adds some tasty slide licks while singing the heartfelt Garcia ballad about a nuclear armageddon that Donald Trump seems hellbent on trying to launch with his insane new Cold War. “The Music Never Stopped” gets the triumphant dance party vibe going again before Weir’s pals Chris Robinson and Jackie Greene return to the stage to help out on a vibrant “Not Fade Away” to close the set. Then just when it looks like it’s all over, the Wolf Bros return to encore with the beloved “Ripple” for one more sing-along treat.
Saturday May 4
Arriving around 2:00 pm on Saturday enables music fans to catch LA’s own Best Coast at the Low Tide Stage, where the band’s uniquely grungy and catchy sound fits BeachLife perfectly. Singer/guitarist Bethany Cosino, guitarist Bob Bruno and the band open the set with their timely ode to LA beach life in “The Only Place” and throw down a series of infectious tunes for a most enjoyable set. The shimmering “California Nights” sounds great even during the sunny afternoon, as does “Feeling OK” with Cosino’s alluring voice blending with the psychedelic guitars for a compelling sound. A cover of The Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection” (recorded for a kids album) hits the mark as well on a tune about lovers and dreamers, an appropo selection for kicking it at the beach on a warm sunny day.
Best Coast – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Back over on the High Tide Stage, drummer Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters leads his cover band Chevy Metal in a raucous hour of Van Halen tunes that pays tribute to one of LA’s all-time greatest rock bands. Playing the role of David Lee Roth here, Hawkins clearly knows this material inside out as the band smokes through a greatest hits set. They also include what Hawkins says is one of his favorite deep cuts with “Drop Dead Legs”, delivering a tight rendition of the track from the band’s 1984 album. A second drum kit leads to speculation that Dave Grohl might sit in, but the second kit turns out to be for Hawkins to make it a two-drummer band at times for kick-ass jams on songs including “Feel Your Love Tonight” and an incendiary version of “Mean Streets” that provides the weekend’s most hard-hitting moment.
Chevy Metal’s Taylor Hawkins – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Dawes takes the Low Tide Stage thereafter, with their easy-going sound providing a good interlude to explore the grounds and maybe take a load off for a bit. The Violent Femmes take the High Tide Stage in the 5:00 pm hour for a rocking set that functions like Friday’s set from As the Crow Flies, transporting some Gen-X fans back to the late ’80s era when classic tunes like “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off” provided the soundtrack to late night dorm room hangouts filled with intoxicated hijinks. Reformed in 2013 after a four-year break, singer/guitarist Gordon Gano and acoustic bassist Brian Ritchie deliver a unique sound that still stands as an influential hallmark in the American folk punk genre they helped pioneer. The raucous “Add It Up” closes the set with a zeitgeist flourish since the lyrics are so timeless, winning the band huge cheers at the conclusion.
The Violent Femmes – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Singer/songwriter Jason Mraz gets a 90-minute set at the Low Tide Stage that feels a bit light weight at first for some in the rock ‘n’ roll crowd. But Mraz takes his sound to a deeper level down the stretch with a mostly female band that features a great sitar and percussion jam that suddenly makes BeachLife start to feel like Monterey Pop. This leads into an uplifting take on “93 Million Miles” that converts skeptics into fans as Mraz delivers spiritual lyrics backed by majestic harmonies and ringing guitars for some musical magic that generates one of the weekend’s surprise top highlights.
Jason Mraz – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Brian Wilson and his band provide Saturday’s headlining set, knocking out a set of of Beach Boys classics that continue to resonate through the decades. A “California Girls” opener sets the tone and even those who might not consider themselves big fans can’t help but feel the infectious vibe on tunes like “I Get Around”, “Good Vibrations” and “Help Me Rhonda”. The set finishes strong with impromptu singalongs on “Barbara Ann” and “Surfin’ USA”, as BeachLife’s second night wraps up with good vibes abounding.
Brian Wilson – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Sunday May 5
The Sunday action at the High Tide Stage kicks off with Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel, as BeachLife throws an extra bone to all the Deadheads who came in to see Bob Weir and Wolf Bros on Friday night. First formed in 2015 with the idea of playing Sunday sets at festivals to emphasize the spiritual nature of the Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia catalogue, the project has grown increasingly popular as evidenced by the large crowd showing up early today. The lineup finds Keller employing Bay Area guitarist Stu Allen on lead guitar (who basically occupies first chair Garcia at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads club in San Rafael), reprising the band that threw down a stupendous Sunday afternoon set at the 2017 High Sierra Music Festival.
Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Vibrant jams on “Here Comes Sunshine” and “Midnight Moonlight” get the set going with an uplifting energy that carries through, with the female vocalists adding an extra spiritual dimension familiar from gospel bands as well as the Jerry Garcia Band. “Eyes of the World” provides another groovy highlight, as do timely selections of rockers like “St. Stephen” and “I Need a Miracle”. Williams and Allen have a great chemistry and could easily tour this project successfully if they weren’t both plenty busy doing what they already do, making these Grateful Gospel sets a rare treat to cherish when they happen. The spiritual vibe goes extra deep on “Sisters and Brothers”, an ever-uplifting tune that always hits the spot for those just trying to make their way through this world of trouble.
The afternoon features fun Low Tide sets from Colin Hay of Men at Work and Big Head Todd and the Monsters, sandwiched around a rocking High Tide set from Blues Traveler. John Popper always dazzles with his ace harmonica work, while Chan Kinchla is still tearing it up on lead guitar. A groovy cover of Sublime’s “What I Got” lifts BeachLife into an ecstatic high, as does a smoking take on “Carolina Blues” that leads into the band’s smash hit “Hook”. It’s around this time though where the craft beer bar starts to run dry, with some 40 excellent selections dwindling to about 10, suggesting that festival planners have vastly underestimated the audience’s appetite for thirst-quenching brews.
LA woman Grace Potter (by way of Vermont) follows on the High Tide Stage with a rocking set where she shows her multi-dimensional skills remain in fine form. Looking like she’s ready to return to her hippie roots with a long-fringed suede vest over a short red blouse, Potter throws down a hot “Medicine” opener as an ode to the coveted sonic medicine of rare sirens like herself. A dynamic take on “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” shines like a gem here with Potter’s natural charisma firing up the crowd. Potter throws in a “Somebody to Love Tease” during “Loneliest Heart”, rocks some slide guitar on her Gibson Flying V and plays keys as she fires up the audience on “Nothing But the Water”, and rocks BeachLife to a big finish on “Paris” to leave the crowd dazzled at the end.
Grace Potter – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Ziggy Marley closes out the action at the Low Tide Stage with a festive set featuring plenty of songs for social justice including “Rebellion Rises”, “World Revolution” and “See Dem Fake Leaders”. He also pays tribute to his legendary father with ever-inspiring jams on “Get Up Stand Up” and “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)” that make it feel like the long arc of history is still bending toward justice in the end.
Ziggy Marley – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Then it’s back to the High Tide Stage for the grand finale with the one and only Willie Nelson. The 86-year-old living legend is still going strong, delivering another crowd-pleasing set of his classic tunes much as he did at when closing out the Outlaw Festival at the Hollywood Bowl last fall. Upbeat songs like “Still is Still Moving to Me” and “Beer for My Horses” set an early tone as Willie delivers the timeless vibe that makes him such a unique performer. As the sun sets, a gorgeous twilight envelopes the festival in picturesque fashion that feels like magic. Departed friends are remembered as “Good Hearted Woman” is dedicated to Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard receives tribute with “It’s All Goin to Pot” which segues into a great thematic pairing with “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”.
Willie Nelson – Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom
Willie still sounds so vital on tunes like “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time”, making it hard to fathom that he’s an actual octogenarian. The fun vibe only grows with audience singalongs on “Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again”, the latter tune resonating through time and space as an eternal classic about the magic of taking the music on the road. “Shoeshine Man” dazzles with a bluesy bounce as the band sounds so good with sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, son Micah Nelson on percussion, and stalwart Mickey Raphael adding great accents on harmonica.
Willie brings BeachLife to a big finish with a closing trio that sees “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” move into “I’ll Fly Away” before concluding with “I Saw the Light”. It’s been a great weekend filled with musical light in a wide variety of sonic flavors, making BeachLife a clear hit in its rookie outing. “Concerts help you live longer,” proclaims a sign at the entrance to festival and watching headliners Bob Weir, Brian Wilson and Willie Nelson seems to confirm that there is indeed a genuine elixir in live music that can’t be found anywhere else…