This year’s incarnation of Beach Goth kicked off with grand intentions.
Taking place on The Growlers’ home turf, the Observatory grounds in Orange County, its lineup promised a veritable horde of renowned artists gathered together with a unified goal to blow minds. And it worked, for a while, until some extenuating conditions of reality and a low-pressure system set in, tipping the scales from controlled chaos to utter disaster. Still, there was plenty to enjoy on a weekend packed with sensory stimulation and gory accouterment.
With so many artists on the bill, many had just a half hour to prove their worth and execute. HOMESHAKE kicked off day one for many people, complementing the arid atmosphere inside the Observatory with a tight, jazz-leaning set that conjured warbly magic and served as a proper palette cleanser for more raucous performances to come.
RuPaul’s Drag Race was a big early day draw over on the Outdoor Rx stage, offering an irreverent alternative to typical festival fare. Iconic queens Adore Delano and Ginger Minj did what they do best, tantalizing show goers with unmistakable charm and poise. Delano displayed some formidable singing chops and a disregard for covering their extremities, while Ginger tortured an unsuspecting soul named Daniel for the entirety of one song, claiming that despite her antics, she is a “cross dresser for Christ.” Without RuPaul present to facilitate this romp, however, things were a bit haphazard, with each performer getting only a song or two and the majority of the daytime crowd puzzled into something of a stunned inaction.
Afterward, I was able to catch Wild Nothing’s last two songs, “Paradise” and “Shadow,” both classics in Jack Tatum’s growing repertoire and personal favorites of mine. It was well worth slugging it out to get back inside the Observatory; an appreciative and lively crowd ate up the sheer, laser beam guitars and tasty bass runs served up by the band. The cool indoor setting relieved Tatum of the mortal fear of sunburns he expressed at their lackluster afternoon FYF set, and I suspect many of the same audience members went away much more satisfied this time around.
It was then time to catch Albert Hammond Jr. in all his hyperactive glory. As the sun tucked behind surrounding corporate buildings and golden hour approached, Hammond and his band proceeded to tear Beach Goth a new one with deafening guitar fireworks. Racing through several cuts off of Momentary Masters, it was about fifteen minutes before Albert cryptically announced, “It’s a good afternoon for a couch,” and bestowed “Spooky Couch” on the masses. The resplendent slow burn of this masterful song caressed the air, creating a contemplative moment within an otherwise blistering set. A spirited run through of “In Transit” later, and the band was gone, leaving a behind a wake of giddy fans. For its quality, the set felt criminally short, but in adding some old-fashioned punk-rock ethos to the festival and Hammond and his band played their role beautifully.
Following this guitar-rock clinic, nineties R&B legends TLC took us all to another galaxy: one without judgment, boundaries, or scrubs. Their neatly polished, expertly paced show featured incredible feats of stage symmetry, impeccable vocals and some lively visuals that made for an all-out banger of a gig. Dual frontwomen Chilli Thomas and T-Boz Watkins proved why they’ve ruled this Earth for 20-plus years as the best-selling girl group in American history. They even invited a lovably salty dad with hair stretching down to his cargo shorts up onstage to dance with Chilli during “Red Light Special.” Magical.
With the Violent Femmes and Patti Smith sounding off in the background, I took a brief hiatus to gather my thoughts after TLC’s magnificent set and grab some overpriced chicken tenders. When people quickly filled in for King Krule’s primetime slot on the Outdoor stage, however, Beach Goth’s myriad logistical issues began to rear their ugly heads. A mass exodus of people leaving Smith’s set ran up against an even bigger concentration of folks just showing up, creating a nightmarish gridlock that could have perhaps been avoided had King Krule been booked on the main stage (a cursory glance across the grounds at the crowd for Melanie Martinez revealed there was more than enough space for her fans).
Flattened against a security railing, I watched King Krule and his ragtag band of anger-jazz masters do their thing, but trying to focus amidst the mob scene surrounding me was difficult. Every guttural scream uttered by Archy Marshall felt extremely relatable, with “A Lizard State” kicking up an intensity that stuck around for the remainder of their set. In a pre-show moment that can be explained only by divine providence, King Krule were introduced by Eric Andre riffing about nipples, exposing himself to those in the front rows and declaring King Krule one of his personal favorite acts. Perhaps this was the impetus behind their debuting new music, and confirming the impending arrival of another record, but whatever the reason, the crowd ate it up, able to ascertain musical bliss even without the benefit of oxygen.
After this beautifully soundtracked horror show, I was lucky enough to make an important discovery: James Blake has an uncanny gift for manipulating emotions. His three-piece live act was the perfect avenue for songs that are glass-delicate, until they swell, reaching heights only explored by a handful of British greats like Radiohead and Jamie XX. His radiant voice and immersive bass were complemented by a deceivingly complex lighting rig that showcased Blake’s status as a subtle force of nature. Left utterly floored after “The Wilhelm Scream,” I felt that James Blake understands the true value of “stripped down,” that is tapping into the essence of his own being and that of the audience.
Though I would have been greatly satisfied with this show as the day one finale, Bon Iver managed to wrestle even stronger emotions from me. His headline set at times skewed dark, experimental and even chaotic, only to rebound with impossibly beautiful alt-country segments. His stage setup reflected his impressive development from a man with a beard and acoustic guitar to an all-out sonic mastermind and auteur of vocal manipulation. Backed by multiple keyboard players, two drummers and a quartet of saxophonists Justin Vernon set out to redefine the artistic standards of a festival that has made its name for celebrating the raw energy of punk, hip-hop and garage rock. This show certainly had its fair share of aggression and energy, but it brilliantly conserved these often overplayed forces, hiding them beneath layers of sound and creating an atmosphere in which anything could and would happen.
Crushing, distorted synths and pulsing drums announced Bon Iver’s arrival, but throughout the course of a very eventful hour, a different element took center stage with every song, whether it was Vernon’s voice transformed into a multi-tonal instrument, or the golden tone of his saxophonists adding an organic touch to a sonic palette otherwise dominated by digital technology. Out from under the guise of his more challenging new material, Vernon closed the show with a solitary old number. Wrestling with the reality of a mesmerizing show reaching its final apex, the crowd lived and died by every note of “Creature Fear,” listening more intently than they had for any other set of the festival, or perhaps their whole lives. A friend I ran into on my way out exclaimed in disbelief, “Was that a T.V. special?!” And I couldn’t refute their sense of wonder. Surreal things happened on Saturday night.
Rain. It keeps our environment from imploding. But it ruins soundboards. It messes up festivals. It aggravates Californians. And Sunday was no exception to these rules. Timber Timbre played the most enjoyable Sunday set that I saw, free from the technological degradation that plagued artists later in the day, and able to be their hot, sweaty and heartbroken selves. Their sultry swagger melded perfectly with the haze of a smoke machine, and the hearty applause they received after every jam from Hot Dreams proved Beach Goth was more than ready to receive their distinct brand of spaghetti-western music with love.
Banished from the forgiving confines of the Observatory, XXYYXX fell a bit flat in the midday sun, plagued by a delayed start and the unforgiving eye of the sun, which didn’t do his heady, bass-heavy sound any favors. What might have been a hypnotizing light show was poorly represented in bright daylight, and his songs seemed strangely as if they’ve lost mystique after being endlessly ripped off by less talented EDM artists. I still hold tremendous hope for the Florida-born producer’s future, however, just entering his twenties and already making waves as a celebrated electronic artist.
I had heavily anticipated the arrival of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, one of my favorite acts on the bill who have well earned their reputation as one of the premier live bands of our generation. However, with awkward stagehand maneuvering and increasing showers serving as foreshadowing, as soon as the band launched into opener “From the Sun,” something seemed off. While the crowd still provided a jolt of giddy energy during all-time soul jams “Multi-Love” and “So Good at Being in Trouble,” Ruban Nielson and co. suffered from technical issues arising from the soggy conditions. Their songs, typically detailed and ripe for improvisation, turned quickly into a bit of a sonic mess, where a few too many tricky drum fills, a malfunctioning pedal board and a frustratingly murky mix shot down the chance at a gig that would resurrect a deteriorating event. After UMO closed with “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” I caught a glimpse of a river protruding out from the food area and a huddled mass of indecisive souls weighing their options. Upon walking over to the now fenced-off Outdoor stage, and discovering by word of mouth that the Observatory itself was full to capacity, Beach Goth finally had exhausted my patience. Defeated by the nonexistent communication from festival organizers and the disappointment of a messy set from one of my favorite bands, it seemed high time to trek back home. Perhaps a change of venue will give this largely wonderful gathering new life next year.