Before taking over lead vocals for a few cumbias during Chicano Batman's Friday night set at Echo Park Rising, bassist Eduardo Arenas shouted out the backyard party culture of L.A.'s Latino community. "We used to have them right here in Echo Park," he noted, "and Highland Park. Los Angeles is changing."
"Fuck gentrification!" someone yelled from the crowd.
You could make a strong case that, without gentrification, Echo Park Rising — a free, four-day festival featuring hundreds of local bands playing in bars, clubs and other venues up and down Sunset Boulevard — couldn't have grown in just six years into the city's biggest neighborhood music festival. The majority of its often makeshift stages are packed into local bars like the Lost Knight and the Semi-Tropic, which only sprang into being after the neighborhood's encroaching population of hipsters (i.e., mostly white, mostly affluent newcomers with elaborate tattoos and/or facial hair) reached critical mass. In fact, it's now sometimes easy to assume that Echo Park has been fully colonized by the American Apparel crowd — and that Echo Park Rising, with its indie rock–heavy lineup, is a reflection of that.
But this year, to their credit, Echo Park Rising's organizers, led by the Echo's Liz Garo, made their strongest effort yet to book bands that better represent the neighborhood's diversity (as of the 2010 census, more than half the population identified as Latino — though that number likely continues to drop). On Friday night, EPR turned over the festival's main outdoor venue, the Liberty Stage, to a quartet of Latino and Chicano bands: the Fela Kuti–inspired Mexico 68, synth-punk/noise-rock trio The Prettiest Eyes, psychedelic cumbia four-piece Thee Commons and veteran local combo Chicano Batman, who closed out the night with their trademark blend of soul, rock and tropical sounds.
If the plan was to make Echo Park Rising more inviting to the neighborhood's Latino population, it appeared to work. The crowd at the Liberty Stage on Friday, in particular, more or less matched the demographics of Echo Park itself — young and old, brown, white and black, gay and straight, all cheerfully grooving side by side. And throughout Friday and Saturday (the only days I was able to attend), the crowd up and down Sunset Boulevard, while definitely heavy on the hipsters, recalled the heyday of Sunset Junction, when families with baby strollers, local skater kids and pierced art-punks would all congregate to enjoy the same music, food and social atmosphere.
More important, Echo Park Rising's Latino contingent provided some of the weekend's most exciting sounds. Chicano Batman's gritty, highly danceable set brimmed with energy from band and crowd alike, especially on older Spanish-language tracks like "Soniatl" and their spacey new single "Black Lipstick." Thee Commons were, if anything, even more thrilling, pushing the galloping rhythms of cumbia into punk-rock territory with churning guitar, wailing sax and glass-gargling vocals. By the time they brought out a dancing gorilla and donned animal masks for their last few songs, they had whipped up one of the festival's most frenzied mosh pits.
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Elsewhere around EPR, Latino artists made their mark in a variety of styles and genres, from The Bloodhounds' infectious, Nuggets-inspired garage rock at the Short Stop to L.A. Drones' propulsive synth-pop, which even in the late afternoon made the dark, crowded confines of the Echoplex feel like a sweaty warehouse party at 3 a.m.
Of course, in the long run, good music is simply good music, and the race or background of those playing it shouldn't matter. I have no idea what garage-pop singer-songwriter Veronica Bianqui's heritage is, and I don't really need to know — her Friday afternoon set at clothing/gift shop Spacedust, crammed into the tiny space with a band that sometimes swelled to eight pieces, was one of the best things I saw all weekend. And I'm sure plenty of Chicano Batman fans came back on Saturday for Bleached's killer surf-punk set, which closed out the Liberty Stage with a bang.
But because of the displacing effects of gentrification — and because Echo Park Rising bills itself as a neighborhood festival — the demographics of who plays the festival do matter. With the loss of Sunset Junction, and the dwindling number of those backyard parties Eduardo Arenas called out, it's more important than ever that EPR use its sprawling, 300-band lineup to showcase L.A. music in all its diversity. Though there are still some areas in which they could do a better job of this — in particular, by booking more hip-hop — the organizers of Echo Park Rising 2016 did an excellent job of unifying a community that, in recent years, gentrification has often divided.