Jack Irons & Eddie Vedder, by Charles Reagan Hackleman

Eddie Vedder’s beachside music festival Ohana Fest continued to deliver this year, boasting headliners The Strokes—making good on their promise of a global comeback—and California favorites Red Hot Chili Peppers, who closed the festival on a high Sunday night with a set filled with hits—“Can’t Stop,” “Californication,” and “Give It Away,” as well as a great rendition of The Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” as Vedder danced alongside on stage. 

On Saturday, the Pearl Jam frontman and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had the whole stage to himself as its main headliner. He sang “Happy Birthday” to his mother, invited fellow festival co-founder, pro-surfer Kelly Slater for a version of “Indifference,” and sang a slew of Pearl Jam favorites from “Jeremy“ to “Black” and “Just Breathe.” He also gave a moving tribute to Daniel Johnston and did covers by Tom Petty, Neil Young and the Beatles. Vedder also made guest appearances throughout the weekend during sets by The Strokes, Glen Hansard, and Jack Irons among others. 

The boutique festival held from Sept. 27 to 29, at Doheny State Park, sold out its Saturday and Sunday tickets early, and saw crowds of about 20,000 people each day. The smaller Tiki stage saw memorable performances from Sunflower Bean, Lewis Capaldi, Laura Jane Grace, Gretta Ray and Donovan Frankenreiter. Tucked way in the Storytellers Cove, The Aquadolls managed to blow the socks off the small crowd lounging on leather sofas and floor cushions—with their riot grrrl energy and Black Flag cover. 

Among the larger Ohana stage’s highlights was a spectacular set by LP. The moniker of Laura Pergolizzi—her gravelly and operatic vocals rang through the whole festival Saturday afternoon as the androgynous rocker known for penning hits for Christina Aguilera, Cher and Rihanna; sang from her own confessional album Heart to Mouth. Making more noise than one person could normally, was Australian multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana whose Friday night set of impressive loops and free jams surprised many. Offering a quieter but no less enjoyable, country-inflected set on Sunday was Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. By evening, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats upped the ante with a searing performance that surely converted a few RHCP fans. They ended with the rousing, hand-clapping “S.O.B.” and left the audience primed for the main event.

At its heart, however, Ohana Fest is more than just the music just as its curator is more than just a musician. The Pearl Jam frontman might be known as a Seattle grunge stalwart but as a kid, he learnt to surf, under the SoCal sunshine at Dana Point, the festival’s site. With the unavoidable specter of climate change and its effect on oceans, Ohana Fest puts sustainability at its forefront—Storytellers Cove also delivered an extensive program of talks on the pressing issues of the day.

It included an illuminating panel about Pebble Beach, a cove in Northern California where then high schooler, Alex Weber, could not see the ocean floor for the 50,000 golf balls. They came from the nearby course and was polluting the ocean with the non-biodegradable plastics used to make the balls. Weber and her father rescued the balls over three years. It was fashioned into an art piece – an instagrammable golf ball-wave that greeted festival-goers once inside the gates

Known for his activism, Vedder has lent his support in the past to the West Memphis Three, as well as spoken on issues of women’s rights and equality. At Ohana, protest slogan t-shirts were spotted on stages all week. Vedder wore "Moms Demand Action" on the last day, a grassroots activist group that supports common sense gun control. He illustrated his personal politics in the festival’s lineup, which endeavored a healthy balance of female and LGBTQ acts to the standard rock fare.

And with that, here are the Top 7 Acts that we loved at Ohana Fest 2019.

The Strokes, by Celine-Teo Blockey 

1. The Strokes

For those of us who had given up on ever hearing The Strokes live we’ve grown to love the noise-laden, psychedelic-world music meanderings of The Voidz, accustomed to an Albert Hammond Jr solo album every couple of years and were looking forward to Nick Valensi’s latest ‘80s electro-inspired CRX album Peek. To then hear last year that the post-punk band were not only about to stage a global comeback kicking off at festivals in Bilbao, Spain, then London’s Hyde Park—being able to finally see the original Strokes lineup, on a modest-size festival stage by the beach, was nothing short of epic! 

They began 20 minutes late, which meant the set was cut short and songs like “Last Nite” were dropped. The festival is held at a protected beach and state park with a hard curfew of 10pm. But when The Strokes had delivered all their best loved sing-alongs—“Heart In A Cage,” “You Only Live Once,” “New York City Cops,” “The Modern Age,” “Reptilia,” “Meet Me In The Bathroom,” “Razorblade,” “What Ever Happened”—so generously, it really isn’t worth splitting hairs! Besides Julian Casablancas seemed visibly perturbed when alerted by Valensi that they were running out of time. He told the audience: “We gotta cut some songs we’re going over.” As the others discussed what to drop, he joked: “I’ll start the bidding at $25,000 for Albert, …” and when that went on for a bit, “Oh play whatever u want, I’ll join in.”

The frontman’s banter was warm and kooky: “This is a festival I’d like to attend. Usually you have to pay me to go to a festival.” His vocals were pristine, hitting all the highs, lows and rasps with gusto. Flanked by lead guitarist Valensi and Hammond Jr, plus bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti, the quintet were fire and cool detachment all at once. 

They were also joined on stage by Vedder, who Casablancas introduced in glowing terms: “We would all collectively like to sleep with him, we want to thank him, we bow to him…” before they embarked on a Pearl Jam cover of “Hard To Imagine” and Vedder stuck around for a second song, joining Casablancas on the vocals for “Juicebox,” off their third album First Impressions of Earth.

It seemed like they closed unintentionally with “Someday” as mid-way through, Casablancas replaced one of the lines with “ I don’t want to be here anymore,” then left the stage. Though he kept singing till the end, the rest of the band existed soon after. Unconvinced, fans hung around waiting for an encore. Strokes members have confirmed rumors that they are indeed working on a new album so fans wishing to see them live shouldn’t have too long a wait. 

Sunflower Beam, by Celine Teo-Blockey

2. Sunflower Bean

It’s been but a minute since New York trio – Julia Cumming, Nick Kliven and Jacob Faber have emerged out of their teens but already the veterans of Brooklyn’s DIY scene, have a fully formed sound and image. Cumming was part-Pat Benatar, part-Courtney Love, plays the bass and was electric onstage. Often sharing vocal duties with Cumming, guitarist, Kliven has a Dylan-esque look but shredded like Bon Jovi in a singlet and shorts. Mustached-drummer, Faber completes the band leading their percussive sound anywhere from explosive punk to dreamy indie and glam rock.

They’ve experimented as much with their stage looks as their sonic signatures over their two albums and their set reflected this. They kicked off with the raw and guttural power-pop of “King of the Dudes.” “Twenty Two” and “Tame Impala” off their latest Twentytwo in Blue followed. Both had a bigger, noisier sound that the studio version. The latter began with Cumming’s punch in the gut wails that segued into a dream-like sequence with Kliven’s vocals—underscored by the bass, the delivery was particularly satisfying. 

From their 2016 debut Human Ceremony they performed “Wall Watcher” which sets Black Sabbath-heavy riffs against Cumming’s cool Blondie-like vocals. On “Easier Said,” her angelic vocals cracked and broke into shrieks, shattering the carefully crafted dream-pop with great effect.

“I Was A Fool,” a gorgeous indie jangle with two-handed vocals was left in tact and a standout in a noise-heavy but eclectic set. Not to be outdone, on one track, their touring keyboardist, Danny Ayala, lifted his Casio Privia and carried it to the front podium to deliver his solo the way a guitarist would – except it was digital piano! Rock on Sunflower Bean! 

Laura Jane Grace, by Celine Teo-Blockey

3. Laura Jane Grace

Seven years after coming out, Laura Jane Grace is still the most high-profile musician to identify as transgender. After releasing her critically-acclaimed memoir “Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Famous Anarchist Sellout” and feeling some pressure to keep on writing righteous agit-pop about her sexuality, Grace chose to take a breather away from her band Against Me! and release Bought To Rot. The solo project was written with her new band the Devouring Mothers, comprised of drummer Atom Willard and sound mixer/bassist Marc Jacob Hudson. 

The adoring crowd basking in the warm afternoon sun loved the good-humored hating on the Windy City with “I Hate Chicago.” She sang: “I couldn’t give a shit about the Pumpkins, Slint or Wilco/Learn to make a pizza you fucking jack-offs,” which prompted mostly laughter. Though one or two hands did rise up with thumbs down. “That song goes down well everywhere but Chicago,” she said tongue-in-cheek when it ended.

All smiles and with no mention of gender dysphoria, her easy-listening songs about overcoming heartbreak – “Apocalypse Now (And Later. ” and “The Airplane Song” - played as nearby young families with babies and dogs in tow, sat under trees as the cool strains of her refrain: “On top of the world, at the end of the world, with you” echoed. 

Glen Hansard, by Celine Teo-Blockey

4. Glen Hansard

Performing in front of a backdrop photo featuring teen activist Greta Thunberg and beloved ex-President Obama, Glen Hansard of “Falling Slowly” fame wore his politics on his sleeve. Between songs such as “I’ll Be You And You Be Me” and “The Closing Door” from his latest, The Wild Willing— a Persian-inflected-electro album that sees him eschewing his usual troubadour-style for electro improvisation—he returned again and again to messages of hope and acceptance throughout his set. 

Before “Way Back in the Way Back When,” he explained the song was originally written about the Irish experience but “sometimes the song is smarter than you.” He went on to an impassioned speech about immigration, which struck a chord with the large audience who clapped and cheered. The bluesy number from his 2016 EP A Season On The Line, segued nicely into Woodie Guthrie’s folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”

Hansard was joined onstage mid-way by Vedder. The two have been friends since Vedder reached out to him almost a decade ago, after a man committed suicide at a venue Hansard’s band The Swell Season was performing. Vedder sang, “Smile” and played the harmonica as Hansard played guitar on the Pearl Jam classic. 

The set came to a close with “High Hope” but really induced goose-bumps when Hansard’s raw and gentle vocals trailed into “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together/ I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.” His rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” was powerful and poignant given current social ills. It reinforced the American Dream as an aspiration available to all, not just a select few that the current White House deemed fit.

Jenny Lewis, by Celine Teo-Blockey

5. Jenny Lewis

Who needs to be just one of the guys when you can be Jenny Lewis? Since her last album, 2014’s The Voyager, she’s swapped the pastel-painted nudie suit for the sparkliest of jumpsuits and a Patsy Cline-bouffant. Her stage was dotted with pink mic-stands, a pink organ and an acoustic guitar, painted in similar hues of ice cream. All that was missing was the rainbow unicorn. 

None of this kitsch and pastel could take away from her somber observations and mellifluous vocals, on standout tracks—“Heads Gonna Roll,” “Wasted Youth,” and “Red Bull & Hennessey”—all off her excellent fourth album On The Line. She also performed “Happy” off her album with The Watson Twins and the crowd favorite from her last album —“Just One Of The Guys.”


Jacob Banks, by Celine Teo-Blockey

6. Jacob Banks

Nigerian-born, Birmingham-raised, soul singer Jacob Banks has been on a steady rise since the release of his 2017 The Boy Who Cried Freedom EP. 

He performed several songs from Village, his debut album released earlier this year as well as two new songs. Highlights included “Kumbaya”—which on the studio version is nicely juxtaposed with the sensual crackle of American-German singer Bibi Bourelly but here was delivered by Banks alone. And of course, “Chainsmoking,” his biggest hit to date. It began with a soulful chain gang chant but the electro beat soon took hold and it revealed itself a total banger that pleased the Sunday afternoon crowd. 


Lewis Capaldi, by Celine Teo-Blockey

7. Lewis Capaldi

If you haven’t been paying attention “Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi has been steadily climbing up the Billboard Hot 100 this Summer. It’s now at No 3. And recently received a boost by Camilo Carbello. She covered it on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge. The song is already a hit in Scotland where Capaldi is from. 

Describing himself as a “chubby boy from Glasgow singing sad songs,” he quickly won the Ohana audience over with his self-deprecating humor. “Anyone from here love rock n roll?” And as everyone cheered he retorted: “Well, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s just me, and this guy on piano,’ pointing to his keyboardist.

More importantly, it’s his deep soulful voice that really packs a punch on songs like “Bruises” and “When The Party’s Over” from his wickedly titled debut Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent. Already hailed by some as the next Ed Sheeran, Capaldi joked that he was on a quest to be America’s next sweetheart. And who knows he might just succeed?