This past weekend at Exposition Park, thirty-thousand lucky concertgoers witnessed a mash-up of action sports and musical performances.
For the fourth incarnation of this unique event, hosted by three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, Air + Style boasted fanfare that, at least in terms of entertainment value, easily rivaled last month’s proceedings in Pyeongchang.
Day One boasted great performances early from the likes of together PANGEA, one of the most formidable psych-rock acts in modern music. Plagued with the tough task of opening day one, PANGEA blasted forth with abandon; mixing pummeling rhythms with searing guitar leads and a fun sense of performative improvisation. Even early on in the day, the crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves and responded in kind to each act’s individual flavor, giving way to the pervading sense of positive momentum that set in over the course of the weekend buoyed by the steady persistence of the midday sun.
Over on the Summer stage, which was situated near the beer garden and a street-style skatepark, Peruvian-born rapper A. Chal was able to overcome some early sound and throat issues to provide a solid set for dedicated early-bird attendees, pairing with an electric guitar-shredding sideman to perform smooth reggae-influenced cuts from his recent release ON GAZ.
With tender, languid arrangements that imbued the evening air with an earnest, patient glow, Wet brought us into uncharted emotional territory on the Winter stage. Frontwoman Kelly Zutrau provided strong vocal performances backed by a jazz-leaning ensemble featuring the sole pedal steel guitarist at Air + Style. With tasteful instrumentation that accentuated the forlorn subject matter of their slow-burning R&B tunes, Wet seemed assured in their ability to radiate sensitivity, sprinkling in tastes of forthcoming new music.
The restless crowd started to really loosen up for Cut Snake, who transformed Air + Style from a casual hangout into a full-blown dance party. Bathed in pulsating LED’s skillfully synced to beat-matched music, Cut Snake graced the Summer stage with a playful, sample-heavy mix that fused carefree performative energy with thunderous bass that transported the early-evening crowd straight to dance music heaven. Looking to my left and right, I noticed multiple people begin to breakdance and don animal costumes as a testament to the disinhibiting effect brought on by Cut Snake’s tightly executed grooves.
After checking out some of Air + Style’s preternaturally gifted skateboard competitors tear up the Washington Street-style course while Memphis punk outfit Ex-Cult blared on in the background with molten-lead guitar riffs, I wandered over for what would end up being my last set of the night on Summer stage, the always rapturous Australian dance outfit Cut Copy. As rain cascaded down from the dark Los Angeles sky and the day one crowd banded together for one last hurrah, this majestic dance-rock band burst forth from the mist in a blaze of glory to provide a harmonically rich and melodically irresistible celebration of life, with rousing closer “Lights and Music” rattling in my head until the following morning.
Day Two offered a slightly different flavor, with a similarly dynamic lineup but considerably more well-established names atop the bill. Early on, BADBADNOTGOOD brought their unique modal jazz sensibility to the cavernous Winter stage, demonstrating both technical acrobatics and an effortless gift for groove, pulling mostly from their recent album IV. Their colorful, forward-thinking arrangements and coolly executed melodic risks made their presence on the mainstage dutifully stand out from the pack.
In a dramatic moment that would reverberate throughout the rest of the festival, Phantogram delivered on the dualistic grandiosity and bleakness of their newest album Three with a rousing performance that drew every single attendee at the festival to the Winter stage, including Shaun White himself. Performing a dynamic mix littered with classics from Eyelid Movies, Voices and Nightlife, Phantogram proved they can no longer be described as having cultivated subjective adoration; a band only for heady individuals and soundtracking late-night reverie. The band has developed into a full-blown powerhouse, with Sarah Barthel’s impassioned, cascading vocals and Josh Carter’s focused, incisive guitar work now being supported by a dexterous backing band. The otherwise animated crowd fell noticeably silent when Barthel lovingly dedicated “When I’m Small” to her late sister Becky, imploring fans to take active measures in contributing to suicide awareness and prevention initiatives. This was, unsurprisingly, a set to remember from one of my favorite bands.
After the sun had finally set and day two began to enter its final phase, chillwave pioneers Washed Out transported Air + Style to their own idyllic island paradise, supporting 2017’s ebullient Mister Mellow. Treating their hour-long set like a showcase for Ernest Greene’s trippiest, most imaginative grooves, the band’s note-perfect arrangements melded perfectly with a resplendent light show that bathed the crowd in fantastical hues, allowing for a ripple effect of blissful emotions to dissipate across the festival grounds. Fans lost themselves to the refrain of “Eyes Be Closed” one final time before the infamous Gucci Mane took over the Summer stage with a bombastic and disjointed trip through 2010s mainstream hip-hop.
Proven indie-pop veterans Phoenix capably closed the night with a captivating display of sound and vision, involving the crowd in every note as they played their hearts out for tens of thousands. Drawing from such far-flung releases as 2017’s Ti Amo and their first record, 2000’s United, the band demonstrated their lasting mass appeal in the form of a veritable hit parade, busting out massive hit songs “Entertainment,” “Lisztomania,” and “Too Young” before the show had even reached its halfway point. As for the arrangements and stage presentation, there were still a few surprises up the band’s sleeve, with glaringly bright, immersive LED projections offering a sense of aesthetic cohesion to the band’s set. Seemingly without stopping to take a breath, Phoenix tore into their music for a workmanlike hour and a half, providing the weekend’s most effortless sense of cool. Frontman Thomas Mars waded out into the loving and reverent crowd during a final reprise of “Ti Amo” thanking us profusely for learning every lyric and making each of their trips to Los Angeles feel special. Even amid the festival’s blatant lifestyle marketing campaigns, the passionate crowd response at Air + Style 2018 felt refreshingly earnest, with a pervading communal atmosphere that successfully turned what might have been a nondescript L.A. festival into a small slice of paradise.