Even from the very beginning, Echo Park Rising has been stubbornly different from other music festivals. The inaugural edition of the festival in August 2011 was a spontaneous affair that was improvised on the fly and booked at the very last minute, but the weekend gathering proved so successful that it became an annual and increasingly popular event.
Spaceland Productions founder Mitchell Frank and the company's vice president of talent, Liz Garo, had informally discussed starting an Echo Park festival along the lines of the long-running Sunset Junction Street Fair in the adjoining neighborhood of Silver Lake, and they leaped into action when Sunset Junction was shut down on short notice in 2011 after the city of L.A. refused to issue permits as a result of unpaid bills from previous years of the festival.
"Sunset Junction was canceled on Wednesday," Garo recalls in a phone interview. "We scrambled to get whoever we could and pulled together several bands who were scheduled to play Sunset Junction." Most notably, she moved one of Sunset Junction's headliners, Butthole Surfers, to the Echoplex, which fortuitously had an open date that weekend, and relocated other performers stranded by the cancellation to nearby Echo Park venues, such as the Echo, Stories Books & Cafe and Iam8bit gallery. The name of the impromptu new festival was coined by Iam8bit founder Jon M. Gibson, and Garo credits former Origami Vinyl owner Neil Schield as another key collaborator in the early years of Echo Park Rising.
"We talked and said, 'Let's do it again,'" Garo says. By the following year, Echo Park Rising attracted so many curiosity seekers that the newly opened restaurant "Two Boots ran out of pizza," she adds. "It was the community and the neighborhood working together. People were still unsure about Echo Park. People don't realize that there was a time when no one wanted to play at the Echo."
Echo Park Rising generates much of the same communal goodwill as the early versions of Sunset Junction, with both festivals featuring rising indie bands from the community instead of the bigger, more famous national headliners who would eventually take over and alter the unpretentious, down-home neighborhood feel during Sunset Junction's later years. But the two festivals are nonetheless quite different in style. Sunset Junction was centered on a half-dozen outdoor stages, and Sunset Boulevard and nearby streets were closed to traffic to create an open-air midway of carnival rides and food and crafts booths. Despite its beginnings as a free outdoor neighborhood party, Sunset Junction also became a more sprawling and crowded affair that eventually required a $20 daily admission charge.
This year, over the course of four days from Thursday, Aug. 16, through Sunday, Aug. 19, Echo Park Rising will have three outdoor stages, including a family-friendly stage at El Centro Pueblo (with tap-dance crew Tapitalists, a DJ workshop for kids, dodgeball games and merriment from Bob Baker Marionette Theater), a music stage in an empty lot on Laveta Terrace, and the larger Liberty Stage placed on a side street behind Taix French Restaurant, which will spotlight the local debut of garage-pop chanteuse Shannon Shaw; a solo set from Chicano Batman's Bardo Martinez; and Warpaint singer-guitarist Theresa Wayman's intriguing new project, TT.
But the vast majority of this year's 528 performers — who range from comedians, artists and poets to musicians and DJs — will appear indoors at a disparate variety of bars, restaurants, galleries, record stores and clothing shops, including Lot 1 Cafe, the Semi-Tropic, Cosmic Vinyl, Nico & Bullitt, Spacedust, Little Joy, the Short Stop, Memento Mori, Trencher, Reservoir Tattoo Studio, Modo Yoga, Blank City Records, the Echo, Stories Books & Cafe and the new Echo Park Thai restaurant Sticky Rice, among others. Along with the approximately 100 businesses affiliated with the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce that are officially taking part, there will be a number of unofficial events presented informally by other businesses and local organizations. Most streets — including the milelong stretch of Sunset Boulevard where most of the venues are located — will not be blocked off to traffic, and all performances are free.
"It's kind of like a small version of SXSW," Bardo Martinez says about Echo Park Rising. "You can go in a bar, or you can see a band outside. It's super-hectic. I love the vibe; it reminds me of a street festival in Latin America."
"As [Echo Park Rising] has grown, the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce has taken on more of an active role," says Garo, who booked virtually all the performers in the early years of the festival. "I try to broaden it a bit, so it's not just all me," she adds. Some stages are booked in part by such outside promoters as Play Like a Girl, Grand Ole Echo and Buzzbands.la's Kevin Bronson, as well as other Spaceland Productions staffers such as Sammie Pearson (who is booking some of the performers at Stories Books), Emily Epstein (who is handling the lineup at Sticky Rice), Luke Hannah (who is scheduling groups at Little Joy) and Taylor Rowley (who, along with Cut Chemist's VJ Tom Fitzgerald and video director Marcus Herring, is selecting the short films and rare videos being screened at Blank City Records' 72-hour video party).
"I always drive everybody crazy because there's always one more band I want to add every year," Garo admits. "A lot of businesses are doing their own thing — throwing a party or booking their own talent — which is great. It's a weird social experiment and experience. I've seen bands do pop-ups in parking lots and on street corners. I like that; it has a little bit of a chaotic feel. It's supposed to be fun and creative. ... In the last three or four years, it's become more of a thing — the turnout, the awareness of it, and people understanding what it is and how it works."
In recent years, the growing crowds attending the festival have been estimated at about 10,000 people per day, according to KamranV, who has been president of the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce since 2014, following in the footsteps of former chamber leader Mitchell Frank. A former production/new-media staffer at Interscope Records who has produced Moogfest in North Carolina, KamranV is one of the primary architects behind this year's festival. He's also the co-founder of Echo Park rehearsal and recording studio Bedrock L.A., which has been the site of recordings and demos by "Weird Al" Yankovic, At the Drive-In, Fitz & the Tantrums, Death From Above and Mia Doi Todd.
"It was Mitchell's idea to get the chamber involved," KamranV says by phone. "It's a very unique moment that so many different people can get together and do this thing — it's truly a community festival. As it grows, it's tough, and it takes a lot of effort," including the participation of dozens of volunteers.
"All the bands really embrace it. Everybody who participates feels like they're part of the neighborhood," Garo says. "In my choices for booking, the majority — 95 percent — of bands are from Echo Park, Highland Park and Silver Lake, bands that have grown up in the Echo Park scene. Shannon Shaw, she's not local, but her band The Clams grew up and developed in L.A. ... The majority of bands play for free. Whatever money comes in goes to the Echo Park Business Improvement District. ... The neighborhood has embraced it being free. If [the festival] keeps growing, we'll probably have to rethink how we do it. It may come to the point where we have to charge [an admission price]," Garo says, although she hopes that won't ever happen. "We'll just see how long it will keep lasting."
"It's a beautiful onslaught of cool bands and artists," KamranV agrees, citing past favorite sets by femme-punk bands such as Bleached, Alice Bag, Feels and Deap Vally, who "slaughtered people and melted faces" with their incendiary performances. "In Echo Park, we have a great network of people who try to make sure that the fest holds its own ethics about who it is. ... This is not going to go away by itself. We're an official citywide event," he says. KamranV emphasizes that officials from the city of L.A. have been "incredibly supportive" and that members of LAPD working the festival have "been good at knowing the line. They take it personally; they're part of the neighborhood. I feel lucky that the folks we work with not only keep us safe but they are also friends of the people attending. That's what makes it work."
"It's not every day you can have a really loud show and not have to worry about the cops shutting it down," says Warm Drag singer Vashti Windish, who runs the homey vintage and designer clothing shop Worship, which has hosted numerous bands at past Echo Park Rising festivals.
Even with expanded comedy lineups from Good Heroin and other local troupes, and new festival attractions this year, such as a bird-watching tour around Echo Park Lake led by staff from Biocitizen L.A., it's the rich and deep variety of musical performances that separates Echo Park Rising from other neighborhood festivals, which tend to feature the same old tribute and classic-rock bands.
This year's lineup encompasses the cerebral hip-hop experimentation of Def Sound, the synth-pumped aggression of Fartbarf, the momentous singer-songwriter pop of Miya Folick, the darkly sinister post-punk confrontations of Egrets on Ergot, the coolly engrossing funk of Harriet Brown, the brash pop-rock minimalism of duo Kolars and the rock & roll fantasies of Starcrawler.
Other potential highlights include the dream-laden storminess of Iress, Clit Kat's scuzzy punk-rock squalling, the supersonic and punky hit-making of Potty Mouth, the queer-friendly Latin funk of Sister Mantos, Annie Hardy's provocative grunge-pop band Giant Drag, Pinky Pinky's fuzz-shrouded pop reveries, subversive post-punk trio ModPods, the hip-hop trippiness of VerBS, showy glitter-rockers Glam Skanks, Pipe Dreams' endearingly energetic punk-pop, anthemic grunge rockers Ramonda Hammer, the spacey electropop euphoria of Polartropica, L.A. Drones' electronic sabotage, Sunset Strip hard-rockers Motorcycle Boy, garage-rock revivalists The Unclaimed and the return of The Chavez Ravine.
"It's such a crazy time. It's hot and sweaty, and I'm firing up a million thoughts a minute," says Michelle Rose, who not only owns the arty clothing shop Spacedust but also sings with the psychedelic pop-rock band Miss Jupiter. After playing a short set at Spacedust last year, "We schlepped all the way down the street to Blank City Records" to play a second show there, she explains. "I play my own store every time because why not?" Rose says of doing double duty in a band and then rushing back to manage her store. "I can transport myself into my music, which is a happy place of solace."
But Rose admits that it isn't always easy splitting herself in two during Echo Park Rising. On the one hand, she's excited that the festival brings new people into Spacedust. "But I also have a mom feeling where we have to make sure that no one gets hurt or nothing gets damaged. There's never a moment when you feel like you're fully prepared. It's like a roller coaster ... but it's also an energy exchange that I thrive on."
Rose's favorite moment as a shop owner was witnessing sets by Feels singer-guitarist Shannon Lay in 2015 and 2016. "She's always bone-chilling and beautiful. Her music is so delicate, and it demands your full attention. As she started, everybody in the store sat down at once ... and a dragonfly landed on her while she was playing."
Rose credits staffer Gabbi Green for doing most of Spacedust's booking. "I want her to do her thing. She really likes to curate things so that chunks of time and bands make sense together. We talked about keeping it to a maximum of 15 bands over four days, and I think we ended up with 24. There's always a feeling of dread. How are we going to pull it off? How are we going to do it this year? It's daunting, but it will be fun."
As another musician playing the festival who also owns a store in Echo Park, singer Vashti Windish can relate to Rose's experiences, although she says Worship won't have live bands this year so she can concentrate on Warm Drag's concert at the Echo on Saturday, Aug. 18. "It's superfun to host a show at the shop, but it is intense and a lot of work." Windish and musical partner Paul Quattrone (Oh Sees) played their first concert together as Warm Drag at Little Joy during Echo Park Rising 2016. They've come a long way in a short time and will be performing songs from their upcoming self-titled debut album on In the Red Records; Windish describes it as being about "all the different forms of isolation. I think there's a power in all that isolation and desolation; there's still hope."
Windish's dreamy vocals are draped across an ever-changing soundscape that's anchored by Quattrone's aggressive layers of samples. "I kind of warp the samples. My main objective is that you can't tell where the sample comes from," Quattrone says by phone while on the road to an Oh Sees show in Denver. "Most of the time, I have two or three samples going at once, so it's like a mashup."
Meanwhile, Chicano Batman bassist Eduardo Arenas checks in with a solo set at the Echo on Friday, and the soul group's frontman, Bardo Martinez, showcases new songs like "Summer" and "Love of Mine" with his new band, The Doves, on Saturday evening on the Liberty Stage. "It's going to be a mad dash at Echo Park Rising with a seven-piece band," Martinez says while recalling the excitement of a Chicano Batman set at an earlier edition of the festival. "Fans were very adamant and going nuts while we were playing," he says, describing how passionate fans overwhelmed the bouncers and overran the stage. "It was a lot of fun."
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Discussing "Summer," Martinez says, "When that melody came to me, it was definitely a sunny vibe and inspired by the heat."
Headliner Shannon Shaw, who came to attention as a member of the ribald Bay Area group Hunx & His Punx before establishing her own garage-rock prowess as the leader of Shannon & the Clams, makes her solo West Coast debut with a set of songs from her recent album, the soulful and countrified Shannon in Nashville, which was produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and recorded with veteran musicians who used to back Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
Comparing her solo material with her garage-rock opuses with The Clams, she says, "I keep them separate. They really are so different. I haven't figured out if I'm supposed to dress differently or not." Like Martinez, Shaw has written a new ode to summer, although her "Goodbye Summer" is moodier than Martinez's breezy tune. "I was super-busy on tour and depressed that I missed summer," she says about not having the time to do fun, typical things like going to the beach. But when she debuted "Goodbye Summer" at a festival in New York and saw "people grooving and dancing on the summer-iest day of the year," she realized that her song worked as a celebratory anthem as well as a sad ballad.
Such shimmering and nostalgic songs should make for a fitting climax for both the summer and this year's incarnation of Echo Park Rising.