The Sunset Strip Music Festival took place this weekend, and it was the most diverse incarnation yet, with more DJs, dancing and funky beats than ever, including a hip-hop stage curated by Murs. Still, the festival's heart remained with the L.A. rockers.
The festival has had a troubled few years, and Sunset Boulevard itself is in transition. The event reflected this. Here are our picks for the best and worst of the weekend.
Jane’s Addiction’s Saturday night’s performance of their major label debut Nothing's Shocking was everything it should have been: intense, exuberant and wistful as ever. Keeping the old arrangements, order and energy, it was a track by track flashback. Like so many times before, a shirtless Dave Navarro seduced frets and females in the crowd, Stephen Perkins slapped his skins into submission, and ring-leader Perry Farrell pranced. He pulverized his menacingly poetic lyrics, stuff he wrote decades ago, like it was the first time. Bassist Chris Chaney did a good job of holding down the essential Jane’s basslines, even if we would have loved to see original member Eric Avery do this historic show. Farrell talked about belonging to L.A. on stage and with us earlier in the week. Saturday night in the streets, Jane's Addiction did. They were, are, one of us and always will be.
Empire of the Sun
Who knew Empire of the Sun's cosmic stage spectacle had so many fans? Their gilded freakshow blew us away with its elaborate presentation, which featured flashy dancers, intergalactic props, incredible costuming and rave-y visuals. But we were also surprised by the crowd, even more massive and enthusiastic than for Jane's the night before. Fusing electronic dance with a Gary Numan-esque new wavey vibe, an Empire concert is like nothing else you'll see live right now.
SSMF has slowly been evolving every year. This year saw a major shift, with an entire hip-hop stage, curated by Murs. It featured an array of rappers and turntable rousers. In many ways, it was the most fun to hang at. The two most memorable sets came from the two most obnoxious yet compelling emcees. Saturday's headliner Riff Raff, who worked an androgynous Jeff Spicoli surfer look and an attitude to match, got the crowd (half of which was on stage with him) to chant about cocaine and partying. Half the time he was getting his hair did by a cornrow stylist on stage. He's a clown, but an entertaining one.
The next day, RA the Rugged Man offered another set to love and hate, as he called out the dumb trendy outfits and fat people in the crowd, threw water at us (and got our camera wet) and was all around over the top. Still, his rhymes sounded fierce and when he jumped the stage and got in everyone's faces, including our own, we dug it. It wasn't pleasant, but it was kinda punk.
The Roxy and The Whisky featured a bunch of bands, and while we recognized many of the names on the schedule, this year yielded some bold discoveries too. At the Roxy it was PPL MVR, a weird sort of Chewbacca-garbed crew doing trippy, primitive psych rock. They were utterly mesmerizing and it wasn't all about the fuzzy frocks either.
At the Whisky, Cattle Decapitation, which our friends described as “vegan death metal,” lived up to their name, pretty much twisting our noggins off like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Which was fitting because the vocals sounded exactly like Satan… a hungry, vegan Satan. The Whisky also offered a small nod to the glam metal heyday of the Strip with a Saturday closing night set by LA Guns, who went on late, with a lineup we didn't recognize, save for the singer. Even so, the guys were smokin' on stage. Say what you will about the Whisky, but the sound there is always still top-notch.
Even though the weather was less brutal outside than it's been, having a place to escape the outdoor hoopla and hustle was welcome. Two hot havens deserve mention. On The Rox, above The Roxy, saw DJs spinning for the actor and hipster sets. Over at Orphic, an upscale rock chic boutique next to the main stage, a VIP rager put on by Rockitsessions and benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project saw tons of rock stars (members of The Cult and Marilyn Manson) rollicking about, getting massages and snatching up cool clothes for a good cause.
Up next, the worst stuff, including the main stage…
The Monster Energy Stage
Don't get us wrong, there was some real talent on this stage, but even so, the vibe just sort of fell flat compared to the other two stages. For one, it was in an awkward spot, right at the fest's entrance, so it was in your face and too close to the hip-hop stage. Two, the lineup was disjointed. Crosses (featuring Chino Moreno from The Deftones) were too gloomy. Failure was, at least in this environment, kinda just that. The next day, Iration's reggae-infused jams were tight, but strangely too pop for this crowd. And Mayer Hawthorne (who seemed confused about why he was playing there; he dissed the stage sponsor) sounded fine, but probably should have been inside a club. He was all over the place and did a bizarre melding that featured a Backstreet Boys song. It was probably ironic (like his ugly Hawaiian shirt), but still.
The Main Stage
We have covered every single SSMF since it first began and for some reason they can never get the layout to work right. Hell, we almost got trampled to death at Motley Crue back in 2011. This year, they had a long partition down the middle of the street leading from the sound booth to the main stage. It did not prevent crowd congestion. It was wasted space, literally- some drunk gals climbed over it and danced inside. Nobody made them leave. Whatever.
The Turn Out
On the one hand, fewer people in attendance made for a more comfortable experience: less traffic, reasonable lines for food and drink, etc. But there was enough good stuff here to deserve a bigger, better crowd. We're not exactly sure why it didn't sell out. Maybe everyone's fested-out at this point. In all, those who didn't attend missed out on a bodacious block party. Also, we know it's all about the music, but one of the reasons we go to festivals is to people-watch, and this past SSMF could have been way more amusing in that regard. It's nice to evolve, but truth be told, we miss the flashy fashion of the metal crowd.
See also: Our photo gallery of the event.