In the past month, I have been at a music festival every weekend. I went to a rave, to San Francisco, to a rap festival in San Bernardino and next week, I am hitting up FYF. I really should have taken this weekend off, but fate (I still don’t recall requesting The Sunset Strip Music Festival, but you can’t argue with confirmations) drew me to the Sunset Strip to witness the monstrosities of The Smashing Pumpkins, Slash, Kid Cudi, Neon Trees, Common and about 50 other bands for a reason. I still don’t know what that reason is, and if you are not up for reading while I wrestle with this bazaar culture, shitty music, and dead scene for the next thousand words, I’ll sum up: I did not have fun. Jesse, my photographer, did not have fun. I question the standards of fun for anyone that did have fun. And then, at the end, The Smashing Pumpkins depressed me. Okay, go and catch up on your Wait, You’ve Never Heard’s or Dusting ‘Em Offs.
Now, the Sunset Strip is an iconic stretch of bars and clubs that sits on the border between Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Hollywood proper. Though I had lived in the area for both the past five years and my entire youth, I had never set foot on the hallowed grounds. Strange? Maybe. But even stranger is the fact that that there is generally no good reason to go there. Occasionally a mainstream act will play a not-so-secret-show at The Viper Room, The Roxy, or The Whiskey A-Go-Go, but pretty much no reputable or relevant artists come within a half-mile of the Strip. The Troubadour, located just south of the Strip, is about the only thing associated with the area that would get any serious music fan out of his house for the night. (Note: I was surprised to find out that the Strip was literally one major block away from the popular gay bar scene of West Hollywood. There was a certain irony in the fact that this antiquated, macho, and misogynistic culture exists so close to their polar opposite, and that their opposite is clearly the forward thinking, relevant, and fun stretch of bars and clubs that the Strip might have been 30 years ago. Also ironic is that nine out of 10 girls on the Sunset Strip look like drag queens. Seriously.
The history of the region is not without its richness. Sure, you have legendary acts like Janes Addiction and Van Halen who can trace their roots to the area, but you also have some more questionable artists like Frank Zappa and The Doors, not to mention the glam rock scene of the 1980’s. Unfortunately, much like all things associated with the spandex of the 80’s, the opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” killed the spirit of the Sunset Strip, and Los Angeles saw its music epicenter shift to Orange County for the majority of the 90’s.
But the strip didn’t disappear, it just aged. One step on the formerly prestigious locale made me feel very young, with the majority of the attendees hiding their sun-wrinkles and stained skin under globs of make-up, black leather hats, and faded tattoos. Why has this scene come to this? Well, the short answer would be pay-to-play venues. Asking a band to put money up-front on a show will surely limit the amount of young talent that you see going through the door. I honestly have no idea how the indie venues differ in their policy, but it seems that the pay-to-play policy that surrounds the Whiskey and Roxy would directly correlate with the death of this being a reputable music scene. And now, after Saturday afternoon, I can back that up with first-hand knowledge that the venues are pretty miserable, too. They all have rather poor set-ups and crackling sound-systems. I also found some of the most obnoxious, pretentious, and down-right abrasive customer service of any bar or club I have ever been too. So don’t feel bad for The Sunset Strip, they’re doing it to themselves.
But still, the idea of closing down the area, opening four of the major clubs to all-day showcases, and erecting two giant stages to feature some of the scene’s notorious graduates seems to work on paper. If only they could bring in real talent for any aspect of that endeavor. Instead, we were forced to endure bands like Neon Trees acting like buffoons and seeming to revel in it, Steel Panther taking the spandex act to its appropriate resting place of dick jokes and pelvic thrusts, and Kid Cudi’s bright colors and attitude, but without an audience to warrant the former hype.
The marquee names on the bill had even less going for them. In fact, it was the kind of bill that caused the music listener to either assume that the career of the artists listed had taken a nosedive, or that the festival had performed a booking coup, somehow wrangling an artist like Common away from a more lucrative or prestigious gig. I can’t tell you which of these is true in the case of Common. What I can tell you is that he started half an hour late after tons of technical difficulty. So, when I am trying to provide coverage of a festival, these kind of time delays can be costly. In fact, some stages were running as much as a full band behind, yet The Smashing Pumpkins started eight minutes ahead of schedule – oh well, another weird mystery on the Sunset Strip. In hindsight, Common did seem to pump up the crowd after the long delay, though.
One other question lingering over the modest festival (for me anyway. The Slash faithful probably knew exactly what his sets are like) was over sub-headliner Slash. Mainly: What the hell would Slash be doing/playing? For me anyway. The Slash faithful probably knew exactly what his sets are like. But I reached the level with the crowd when I made my way toward his stage to hear the opening to “Sweet Child of Mine”. Jesse’s face was priceless at this moment, looking up in disbelief and mild amusement. He didn’t even realize that it was Slash blasting through the streets, thinking it was just another of the random-as bands that made up the bill.
This same weekend, on the other side of the world, the same song was surely played without Slash, and while vocalist Myles Kennedy could easily sing circles around Axl Rose these days, the iconic riff could be played by anyone and sound exactly the same. It was hard to see the difference between a bar cover band and this incarnation, other than the presence of Slash, which was palpable but really never materialized into something grand. Slash, even in this moment, seemed more comfortable on the side, as a band member and not a focal point. It is hard to begrudge the guitarist a moment in the spotlight, a moment he seemed genuinely taken aback by. And with news of his divorce breaking as I write, I don’t want to pile on. Did people eat it up? You bet. Are these people total weirdos? A little bit. But, if watching Slash touch the bases of GnR and Velvet Revolver and cover “Barracuda” with Fergie (who could totally be a rock singer if she wanted. She nailed both the voice and the attitude) is your idea of a nice Saturday, well, you might need to come to a couple shows with me and see what else is going on in music. And you might totally hate it, but I couldn’t help but feeling like making a mix tape for the crowd.
So, maybe the main stages weren’t for me. Maybe the tiny clubs held the cutting edge music that will carry the Sunset Strip back to its past glory. Well, that may be hoping for too much, but I did manage to find a couple treats in these darkened rooms. Tornado Rider, a San Francisco three-piece, brought the juvenile revelry that the Strip is known for and turned it upside-down. With songs about magical, mythical lands and falcons, the lead of an electric cello shredding every corner of the Whisky was a welcomed surprise. It was silly, it was fun, and it was what the Sunset Strip needs to get itself back on track. Another example of this would be the afternoon set I caught from Lady Sinatra, a post-hardcore outfit that was high on attitude and high on screaming, but the kind of music that you could see outgrowing the tiny room into something bigger.
Looming over the entire affair was a closing set by The Smashing Pumpkins. This was the first time I had ever seen the band and I now wish I had left their live show a mystery. During second song “Ava Adore” it became clear from the over-the-top thumping bass that this was not the precise, atmospheric group I remember from my youth. In fact, what about The Smashing Pumpkins could be associated with the tired display that the Sunset Strip had become? I can’t honestly think of a correlation, other than they are both has-beens, clinging to any possible shred of relevance they can find. If you want a more in-depth report of the crap-fest that was Corgan and co., I’m sure there will be plenty of nostalgic, flattering crap out there for you to read from a writer without the balls to look up on stage and see The Smashing Pumpkins for the pathetic mess that they have become. It was seriously depressing shit.
So yeah, the Sunset Strip Music Festival was not for me. I don’t really know anyone who it was for, but they exist in this strange little mile of real estate, preserved for the past 30 years like the Jurassic Park mosquito. Will there still be anything to revisit in 30 more? Surely. Because as dead as the music scene currently is there, the past is storied enough to become legend. Bands will always want to play the strip, not realizing it will cost them and great acts will always step through on their way to the new prestigious halls. I’d rather have my raves, my rap festivals, my indie carnivals. I gain no comfort in the past, I’d rather see what is next. Hopefully, it’s like Tornado Rider.
Photography by Jesse Bloch.
Gallery by Jesse Bloch