As SWMRS took the Observatory stage just three hours into Beach Goth V, I reached peak levels of dejection.
The Oakland quartet opened with a rendition of Fugazi's “Waiting Room.” When the bassline struck, I wondered what Ian MacKaye would think of the image unfolding before me. The mosh pit, engulfing every surrounding fan through a sheer lack of standing room. The festival-goers who, during SWMRS’ set, attempted to topple over security guards responsible for enforcing the mandated capacity. How would he feel about $9 PBRs and $50 parking spots?
The modern reality of festivals can be soul-sucking, unsanitary, inhumane and fully dystopian – but all in good fun. Goth V toed this line as fans held onto their BDSM harnesses (for many, it was an early start to Halloween) for dear life.
When details for Beach Goth V were revealed in July, the festival seemed to have clear intentions of expanding. The Growlers, the Costa Mesa-based band that presents the event, went with a larger lineup, a hike in ticket prices, and a move from the Observatory to Oak Canyon Park, another Orange County venue notorious for logistical hiccups. Most recently, attendees of the Day N Night Festival reportedly spent hours waiting to enter and leave the park by way of Santiago Canyon Road’s single lane.
Perhaps because of Day N Night's issues, weeks before Beach Goth V, organizers announced the festival's return to its former home. That meant no six-hour wait to exit the parking lot, but brought other issues instead. The Observatory's grounds are not fit for thousands, as a festival locale should be. Its layout doesn’t allow for the kind of comprehensive security detail that festivals should prioritize. I spent my first five minutes at the festival winding through crowds, searching for will call. Then I realized that I was already inside the festival grounds. I wore no wristband and my bag went unchecked.
The Observatory lacks defined walkways and seating, save for a few picnic tables central to the outdoor stages and benches inside the venue. I nearly stepped on a toddler who crouched to gnaw away at pizza crust, wearing a tiny Chromatics shirt and an artist wristband.
Festival-goers could look to the lineup for reasons to continue braving these conditions. We can thank Patti Smith, who greeted nightfall with calls for personal and political liberation. “We don’t need bombs, we have electric guitars!” she shouted, lifting her own to launch into “My Generation.” Or Archy Marshall of King Krule, who tossed water bottles into the audience when he saw how firmly fans were packed in.
The music isn’t the problem with Beach Goth. In fact, the performances may have been the only element of the festival that wasn’t an issue this year. The subpar organization and location, unfortunately, reflected poorly on the festival’s output.
And then it began to rain. Sunday’s cooler temperature first disguised itself as a blessing. Early afternoon offered mere perspiration sprouting from the clouds. The sets scheduled during that sprinkle were some of the weekend’s best, from La Femme to Gucci Mane, who rushed the Dome Stage with a series of celebratory yelps, an a cappella intro of “First Day Out,” and his toothy grin. Gucci’s own exhilaration could only be matched by that of the fan behind me, who spent the latter half of the set sobbing while Facetiming everyone in his contact list.
Meanwhile, the line to the Constellation Room stage snaked even farther across the festival grounds, as people sought shelter from the rain. Bodies stood so tightly packed around the Outdoor RX Stage, squashed between two commercial buildings on Harbor Boulevard, that costumed fans resorted to climbing trees for a reprieve. The crowd standing below regularly peered up at those precarious branches, ready to dodge a masked Milhouse falling from the sky. In those areas, the mere swaying of the crowd elicited moshing. Crowd-surfing or hopping the closest median seemed to be the best escape routes. I mapped them all out in between sets.
To be fair, most festivals entail such times of adversity. Getting your back cracked between two strangers, feeling your feet part ways with the ground as a crowd shifts, sidestepping puddles of puke behind a gourmet ice cream tent — this is the price we agree to pay (in addition to admission, transportation, meals, alcohol, and that wig to complete your Wednesday Addams costume, but who’s keeping track?).
But conditions posed by the weather ranked this storm beyond another festival season rite of passage. On the hotter afternoon, Beach Goth’s absence of water fountains or complimentary refill stations was not unforgivable — just weak on the organizers’ part. But their lack of preparedness for Sunday’s storm pushed the event into chaotic, even dangerous territory.
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The main throughway of the grounds (where security checks, merchandise tables, and food trucks were positioned) flooded entirely. Organizers temporarily shut down the Outdoor Stage, which proved its flaws in Saturday’s shine, let alone Sunday’s rain. Nicolas Jaar moved his 6:45 appearance inside the Observatory and opted for a DJ set instead of a live performance. Grimes was forced to cancel her second Beach Goth appearance altogether, tweeting that the downpour destroyed her gear.
While Beach Goth’s natural disaster raged on, concert-goers stepped up to the plate to remind one another of the kind of humanity still existent outside of the Observatory grounds. A group of attendees carried people back and forth across the flooded walkway in order to keep them dry. One member of a packed crowd extended the spigot of his CamelBak to surrounding fans between sets, earnestly asking, “Do you want a hit?”
A sip of water, a hand over the nearest barricade, an offer from the fan in front of you to remove his headdress so you can catch a glimpse of Devendra Banhart – these gifts go a long way after a couple days of festival living.