California Roots Festival 2016 | Review

The 7th annual California Roots Music and Arts Festival was held over Memorial Day weekend at the historic Monterey County Fair and Event Center at the South end of the Monterey Bay in central California.

Continuing the tradition of the area’s storied history and appreciation for roots reggae and world-influenced Afro beat music, Cali Roots has quickly grown to be recognized as the largest reggae-centric festival in the world. This year headliners featured were Atmosphere, Slightly Stoopid, Damian and Stephen Marley, Rebelution, Michael Franti & Spearhead, The Expendables and Pepper.

Dub and reggae artists from around the world gathered as collective fans first, regardless if they were in the crowd or on the stage. It was refreshing to be at a festival not where people are spun out, making messes of themselves, (“Nah, I’ma stay” vs “Namaste”) but the attendees at Cali Roots were genuinely stoked for each other.

Typically the confines of a city-fest can breed nefarious events and bad vibes, not always because of but often attributed to younger and less responsible patrons. But even amidst the long lines and crowded passage ways, people were showing off their mellow moods with a smile, high five or game of hacky sack which strangers were welcome to join.

Limited camping was available within the fairgrounds and the older heads in the area definitely set the standard and it spread further each day. Many artists were camped here as well, and would wander through the crowd, virtually unrecognized. California Roots Music and Art festival was home to persistent positive vibes. Every direction you turned, there was a reminder of the local and global root connection. Business artists, musical artists and structural artists like the Phoenix, AZ based Digital Permaculture were interspersed at every corner.

Comfort was not hard to manage either as every stage featured a large grassy field and plenty of room for anyone to claim any dancing room they needed. Getting to the front early was easy, and very few artist sets overlapped, meaning fans could watch the whole set without stressing about the next act. The OG Stage in the center of the fairgrounds even featured loveseats and chairs for the ultimate cozy up to the warm embrace of reggae. The majority of food and beverage vendors were also featured in this area, contributing to the primary congestion of the pathways behind the assorted seating and between the two major stages.

“Cali Roots is a special festival because it’s got its finger on the pulse of what’s going on in American reggae music today,” says guitarist/vocalist, Zion Thompson of The Green. “Every band is a part of this movement that has evolved from a few semi-underground, torch carrying reggae bands, to something that has quickly shot to the forefront of popular music culture.”

Aside from a singular, freak accident in which a speaker support system failed and crashed onto a handful of festival goers at the Bowl Stage during The Green’s set on Saturday, the entire event ran incredibly smooth, and every act connected with their fans in a unique way to remind them why they’re here.

Even though there was camping available, I opted to make the short (ha) drive from Santa Cruz, at the top of the Monterey Bay, to the Monterey County Fairgrounds every day. I only ran into terrible traffic on the way in once, on Sunday. Michael Franti hit the same traffic on the way from Bottle Rock in Nappa Valley, but still arrived with plenty of positive energy and time to speak with Sirius XM radio’s reggae channel, The Joint.

During the short interview, Franti noticed the Prince shirt the reporter was wearing and told a story about being invited to a private party hosted by Prince.

“It didn’t look like a party,” Franti said, “But I saw purple lights.”

In the backyard was a pool with a stage hanging over it, and on the stage a 15 piece band was playing all night for about eight people, maybe 40 at the peak of the evening, according to Franti. He went on to describe how he loves tenacious people like Prince, and that he is working on a documentary focusing on the influential power of tenacity, specifically of three people including a midwife and a surfer.

On Friday, I was able to leave my day job early and beat the rush of commuters coming from SF and was able to catch some personal favorites. Although I had walked up to the festival during Atmoshpere, by the time I made it inside the gate they had finished. So, I headed straight for Santa Cruz originals The Expendables. Hitting the Cali Roots Stage hard, they ran through several crowd favorites, like “Sensimilla” from 2001’s No Time To Worry and a cover of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.”

Just before the encore, a heavy-metal ska breakdown saw the infancy of a mosh pit, but it didn’t last. They chilled things out a bit with a lively Red Hot Chili Pepper anthem, “Under The Bridge,” before ending the set with their most popular song, “Bowl For Two” from 2004’w Getting Filthy. Once they reached the bridge, lead vocalist Geoff Weers said “Alright, I know there’s at least one motherfucker out there that knows how to play this song, let’s get you up here!” Johnny Ray, a teenager in the middle of the crowd was pushed forward and climbed over the fence to join the band, taking Weers’ acoustic and even adding some of his own personal flair as they finished the song.

One of the biggest and immediately impressing features of the festival was the giant LCD screens on either side of each stage. Pro shot camera work and a CCTV feed, combined with minimal (if any) set over laps between artists, ensured that no matter where in the festival grounds you were located, you would be able to see and hear whoever was on stage in crisp, super high definition, without having to worry about stages bleeding sounds.

Slightly Stoopid lit up The Bowl, the newest stage and structure to festival and fairgrounds, respectively.  One highlight of the set was from a visit to 2012’s Top Of The World album for “Just Thinking,” even bringing J5 legend Chali 2na out on the stage to fulfill his role on the album version.

Don Carlos, the Jamaican-born reggae singer superstar, was a low-key Artist At Large, often introducing acts and sitting in for a song or two, like he did on Slightly Stoopid’s “Marijuana,” also from Top Of The World album. Returning for their third overall and second consecutive appearance at Cali Roots, Slightly Stoopid seems like a strong favorite to score a hat trick in 2017, especially with the fever they brought to close the first day of the festival. Even their golden retriever managed to share in the spotlight on stage.

Saturday was much easier to navigate, and parking was a breeze. It seemed that a lot of people were taking advantage of the free bicycle and skateboard valet being offered by local Monterey company Green Pedal Couriers, who specialize in ad distribution, package servicing and “human powered” valet options for major events as well as bike powered smoothies providers.

Saturday’s options were more DJ heavy than any other day of the weekend, but unfortunately that is not where I split my time. Mostly I spent the day taking in the vibe, checking out art installations and wares for sale and watching young reggae-rock groups making their mark on the festival’s history, groups like The Green, Will And The People and Katastro.

Stephen “Ragga” Marley kicked off the headlining sets strong, with a non-stop groove feuled smoke out in The Bowl. Rasta imagery flew high on the front of flags both on stage and in the crowd from 6PM through the close of the set: an encore-tribute to his father, the legend Bob Marley, by covering The Wailers’ classic “Is This Love” from 1978’s Kaya.

San Diego by way of Hawai’I transplant band Pepper returned to the Monterey festival for their third time and closed the Cali Roots stage with a hard, fast and furiously nostalgic punk rock set. Lead vocalist Kaleo Wassman expressed his gratitude to the crowd, stating, “We appreciate the example of California in human rights and we say ‘No!’ to stormtroopers! We’ve been doing this for 19 years, unscripted.” They closed the set by inviting members of The Green onstage for a seated, acoustic performance of “Tradewinds”.

Following Pepper’s high energy, in-n-out of the crowd jolt of adrenaline, the stage was set for Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley’s closing set of the evening.

Before Mr. Marley hit the stage, however, Don Carlos returned to the stage and got the crowd pumped up for a young Jamaican artist taken under the Kingston family care who goes by Black Am I, who performed three tracks.

Before Damien took the stage, an incredibly elaborate “Final Countdown” production with the theatrics of George Clinton’s spaceship peaked the crowd’s enthusiasm as they opened with The Wailer’s “Sun Is Shining”. He covered several more obscure Wailers tracks, and performed some of his collaborative works with Skrillex and Nas before older brother Stephen was welcomed back on stage.  The pair performed two songs: Stephen’s own “Patience” and a family tribute to Jamaica with their father’s smash hit “Could You Be Loved?” before returning for the first song of the encore, with “Get Up, Stand Up”.

After a highly successful first two days full of new favorites and nostalgic classics, the third and final day was met with eager anticipation. Arriving later than I meant because of traffic meant that I didn’t catch the beginning of the first set I had scheduled to see: South Bay Dub Allstars at 2PM on the OG Stage.

But what I did catch from the ten-man band, and what was later expressed more completely in an interview at their camp inside the festival grounds, was that these guys are trying to evolve the sounds that they grew up on and representing 6 different counties along the California coast as well as combining forces of working bands in the scene, the South Bay Dub Allstars will be a name to become familiar with sooner than later.

With single day ticket sales for Sunday an option, there were a lot of big name acts throughout the day. Tommorow’s Bad Seeds played a hard-hitting and tight set at the OG Stage, really showcasing the chops and nuances that can only come with 40 weeks a year on the road. Tribal Seeds followed on the Bowl Stage, bringing an eclectic mix of funkified reggae jams and world beats, and I was able to catch a little bit of Raging Fyah’s set as well. I had heard so much about Raging Fyah, the passion they bring to the stage is best experienced in person. I definitely look forward to making these both of these groups a priority any time they come back around the neighborhood.

Michael Franti and Spearhead captivated the crowd often, and busted out a ton of surprises. The biggest being when he picked out a six year old girl who was singing in the crowd during Franti’s 2010 single “Sound Of Sunshine” off the album of the same name. Franti recognized that she was actually singing the words and brought her on the stage, handed her the microphone and taught her how to keep both halves of the crowd happy by running across the stage between verses.

A few songs after the little girl returned to her family in the crowd, Franti climbed over the fence himself with his guitar and played nearly the rest of the set from different sections within the crowd, involving as many people in his performance as he could.

Rebelution, a festival favorite, kicked off their summer tour by closing the festival strong, continuing the tradition of featuring guest musicians joining them on stage, actively promoting the festival’s underlying message of unity and togetherness. A true reflection of the parting message Franti left the crowd just before Rebelution’s set.

“My message to you right now,” said Franti, “is remain positive. We need that. Build bridges, not walls.”

Check out more photos from California Roots Festival.

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