Photo by JP Cordero

A festival bringing Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys back to the neighborhood where it all started and epitomizing the laidback California lifestyle—celebrating beach, surf culture and music with the good vibrations. That was the goal for organizers of the first-ever BeachLife Festival, held in Redondo Beach last weekend, May 3-5. And with headliners Willie Nelson and Bob Weir, plus Ziggy Marley and indie rock stalwarts Best Coast, they succeeded with full marks.

Curated by Jim Lindberg of local punk band Pennywise, the festival featured 40 acts and had no overlapping sets on the two main stages. The Low Tide stage was located on the sand, seagulls overhead and the taste of salt in the air, while the High Tide stage was laid with turf conducive to blankets and beach chairs. A smaller Riptide Stage showcased homegrown West Coast acts such as Matt Costa and Lost Beach.

Festival-goers skewed older than Coachella but Allen Sanford who owns Hermosa Beach music venue Saint Rocke and organized BeachLife with partner Rob Lissner, have an independent spirit and were not interested in going for the same demographics. In the front row of Blues Traveler, a young teenager sang happily along to the New Jersey band’s harmonica-heavy, blues rock – it was an eclectic, multi-generational affair. Everyone who loves the beachlife vibe, regardless of age, was welcome; there were more than enough Instagram-able moments to be had. There were art installations, food trucks, epicurean events and great weather for good selfies.

And if the purpose for going to a music festival is to forget the state of the world and recall a more innocent time, then a large dose of nostalgia is what we needed. That too was in no short supply. Acts from the days before streaming when radio and MTV ruled such as Sugar Ray, Big Head Todd, Everclear, Bruce Hornsby, Men at Work’s Colin Hay and Berlin whose Top Gun hit “Take My Breath Away” must be seared in our minds as one of the most iconic beach moments–were all on hand.

On day 1, punk band Slightly Stoopid did a pleasing acoustic set on Day 1 which featured Bob Weir and Jurassic 5's faster-than-a-bullet rapper Charlie Stewart (2Na). Foo Fighter drummer Taylor Hawkin's Van Halen covers band, Chevy Metal provided ample hair metal moments on Day 2.

Surprising bands that met the beach life criteria were Dawes, whose lead singer turned up in an oxford blue button-up shirt looking like he missed the turning for a marketing conference. But what he lacked in dress sense he more than made up in his energetic performance. In stark contrast was crowd pleaser Jason Mraz, almost unrecognizable without his pork-pie hat. He was in a multi colored-splashed jumpsuit which he joked was ‘two sizes too small from having his mother-in-law do his laundry.’ As the sun begin to set over the ocean on Day 2, Mraz and his color-coded crew entertained with “Let’s See What The Night Can Do,” “93 Miles,” “Lucky” and “I’m Yours.” The lines for beer and cocktails were the longest all weekend but the vibes were easy. 

One of the weekend’s most significant set was Brian Wilson. Many were puzzled and a little troubled to see the 76-year-old wheeled onstage up to his grand piano. His vocals weren’t what they use to be but fellow Beach Boy, Al Jardine, his son Matt, and a supporting band of accomplished musicians made sure that the cavalcade of Beach Boy harmonies on “Surfin’ USA,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” and “God Only Knows” were nothing short of pitch perfect.

Beyond the Beach Boys and a special mention to Australian Colin Hay who delivered seamless hits like “Land Down Under,” Who Can It Be Now” and “It’s A Mistake”—that sounded at once nostalgic and timeless, here are the Top 5 Acts we loved most.

Best Coast, by Celine Teo-Blockey

1. Best Coast

Best Coast frontwoman, Bethany Cosentino has inspired a generation of young women to take up the guitar and rock so it was very sweet and humbling when the gushing Sugar Ray fan remarked: “Why anyone put us after Sugar Ray and before Everclear I’ll never know?” Indeed the beach stage did thin out but their performance was nothing short of stellar.

Experiencing their brand of  ‘60s girl groups-meets-modern-indie-rock sound in a darkened auditorium is nice but out on the sunny beach where Cosentino admitted she used to frequent as a kid, encapsulates so much of what the band opines about, and was utterly blissful. Bobb Bruno’s shimmering guitar melodies wafted through the seabreeze on “The Only Place” as Cosentino sang “we have the ocean, we’ve got the breeze, we’ve got the waves…this is the only place for me.” It was followed swiftly with the unforgettable guitar riff of “So Unaware.” They played hits off their three studio albums Crazy For You, The Only Place and California Nights but you didn’t need to know any to enjoy them. They are currently recording their fourth. We can’t wait!

Other highlights included “Run Through My Head”—Cosentino apologized ahead as they had never done the song live but no apologies needed, it was perfect; her punked up version of Kermit’s “Rainbow Connection;” and closed with “Boyfriend” an oldie fans know don’t get sung live much anymore. “I know you guys think I wasn’t going to sing it,” she teased before launching into it with gusto, dropping to her knees as she pleaded “I wish he was my boyfriend.” She alternated coquettish pleas with sass and her one-shoulder, come hither move before wailing and finishing flat on her back, as the last notes of the much-loved tune played out.

Violent Femmes, by Celine Teo-Blockey

2. Violent Femmes

They looked older but Violent Femme’s Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie and current drummer John Sparrow sounded as good as the days of mix tapes on cassettes. The folk-punk rockers from Milwaukee sang all the hits. “This Free Ride” kicked things off and we couldn’t believe our luck—we had a whole set of Violent Femmes ahead of us! We didn’t have to wait too long for “Blister In The Sun,” then came “Kiss Off,” “Another Chorus” and “American Music.”

As usual, Horns Of Dilemma—the band name given to supplemental musicians that have joined the Violent Femmes onstage since the very beginning, did a great job at aiding the trio. Blaise Garza, who played what looked like a dinosaur-sized saxophone, now leads the Horns of Dilemma. Sparrow too started out in the HOD before playing brush on barbecue in the main line. Playing the Weber barbecue as a percussion instrument is par of the course for the band who started their career street-busking. Another favorite “Gone Daddy Gone” saw Ritchie among other things play a xylophone and conch shell.

They followed that with “I Am Nothing,” then a fitting cover of Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach” before ending with the searing “Add It Up.” As Gano sang “Why can’t I get just one kiss? Why can’t I get just one kiss?” we all sang along to each punk lyric into a state of euphoria. Then like the best punk songs, it was all over too soon. Can they come back again next year?

Sugar Ray, by Celine Teo-Blockey

3. Sugar Ray

Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath might have missed his calling as a standup comedian. The huge crowd might have been there to hear memorable classics such as “Someday,” “Every Morning” and “When It’s Over” but his banter and self-effacing humor kept everyone there, even for the new songs they didn’t know. He made fun of his rock stardom and now being a father to girls. He was almost in tears when talking about guitarist and friend Rodney Sheppard; they started the band more than 30 years ago in his mom’s garage.

“We love Yacht Rock, I say with no irony,” he quipped, before “Coconut Bay” a song they had collaborated with Brendon Urie, who he said was from “Panic at the Discotheque.” McGrath announced after, that they had a new album coming up, then joked: “I know that’s a bummer for some of you!” Whenever they were about to sing a new song, he would announce it then take the mickey further mimicking a women’s voice: “Honey, I’m going to the bathroom, it’s a new song.” Some of the newer tracks placed them in the same lane as Weezer and got us sufficiently curious for the new album.

They finished with a Ramones cover, Blitzkreig Bop and their first Billboard number 1—the reggae-infused “Fly” off their 1997 album Floored as bubbles floated away in the mid-day sun.

Ziggy Marley, by Celine Teo-Blockey

4. Ziggy Marley

Fresh off Jazz Fest, the Grammy-winning reggae superstar and eldest son of Bob Marley performed a set that preached one love and positivity. A close friend of Willie Nelson, Marley began with “I’ll Be Glad” from his most recent album Rebellion Rises—a call to look after the planet. He also performed other songs from the album including “See Dem Fake Leaders” and “World Revolution” where lyrics such as “no more killings for religion/and their political decisions/don’t you hate us for the color of my skin” struck a chord.

Following in his father Bob Marley’s footsteps, using music to spread his message of love, Marley also peppered his set with Bob Marley and the Wailers classics—“Get Up, Stand Up,” “Coming in From The Cold” and “One Love.” He of course, sounded indistinguishable from his father and of all his siblings also shares the closest physical resemblance.

Adhering to modern Rastafarian principles of respect for nature, Marley released a cookbook last year with recipes that focused on growing food grown organically. “Eat with your brain, not your eyes,” is his motto.  Onstage he reiterated: “We must take care of this planet. I know they want us to live on Mars but right here,” he said, with arms outstretched, “is everything I need,” before singing “I Don’t Wanna Live On Mars.”

Three of his four kids then joined him on stage in dance for to the Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers 1989 hit “Look Who’s Dancing.” The Melody Makers were made up of his brother and two sisters and encouraged by their father. The kids here stole the show the way Ziggy and his siblings had done decades earlier when their father would bring them on his stage.  It drove home the importance of family as young kids played in the sand and teens hung from the monkey bars watching the jumbo screens; bringing a fitting close to one of the most spiritually uplifting sets of the festival.

Willie Nelson, by Katie Hanley

5. Willie Nelson

Country legend Willie Nelson’s most enduring message for the night was “roll me up and smoke me when I die.” The 86-year-old sung those words with such gusto and glee it even got us high. And we weren’t even smoking. A tireless humanitarian, Nelson still organizes the annual Farm Aid Festival with Neil Young and John Mellencamp. It was started in 1985 to raise awareness of the loss of family farms to corporations and big agriculture. It continues to raise millions every year with its music festival and grassroots organization but was also ahead of its time in promoting a more sustainable, holistic approach to food and farming.

As famous for penning Music Row hits like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and his love for marijuana (he is on this month’s cover of Rolling Stone’s special weed issue), is his reputation for genuinely wanting to help those in need that reach out to him. He once turned his 80th birthday celebration into a benefit for victims of the West town tragedy (an explosion in the Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people, 12 of whom were first responders).

The man is a national treasure and remarkably, still writing new music and touring. He kicked off his set with “Whiskey River,” followed soon with the 1976 Waylon Jennings duet “A Good Hearted Woman.” As he launched into the tongue-in-cheek “It’s All Going To Pot,” he said: “Now one for Merle (Haggart),” another dear friend that has since departed.

He introduced his most recent songs the tender ballad “My Favorite Picture ” and “Ride Me Back Home,” the latter also the title of the new album he released two weeks ago. From his 2017 album, he sang “Still Not Dead” about the time the internet kept proclaiming him dead. “I woke up still and I’m dead again today,” he sang with mirth to a crowd that laughed along and lapped it up.

Giving folks what they wanted, he delivered old favorites synonymous with his deep tenor and gentle twang such as “You Were Always On My Mind,” “On The Road Again” and “Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” His younger son Micah sang alongside him. His older son Lukas Wilson who helped write and produce the Grammy-winning soundtrack for A Star Is Born was absent. Though his older sister Bobbie Lee Nelson still plays the piano in his band; they’ve been on the road together since 1971.

He closed the evening with a rousing medley “Will The Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away/I Saw The Light” as John Popper of The Blues Traveler joined in on harmonica. Nelson who had already thrown off his cowboy hat into the crowd earlier, threw his second bandana—like Elvis Presley used to do with scarves—and then strode off quietly into the night like a gun-slinging hero while the band played on; the scent of weed still lingering in the air.