Large crowds gathered early on Friday, September, 27th for the opening day of the fourth annual Ohana Music Festival. The brainchild of Eddie Vedder, the event is a carefully choreographed music and arts festival with a strong environmental message. The venue is located literally on the beach and adjacent park at Doheny Star Beach. The concert grounds and bleachers overlook the historic Doheny surfing break, which may be one of the most tranquil surfing breaks in the world. As concert-goers gathered to listen to the music, a horde of surfers swarmed the break riding long slow waves that looked more like boat wakes than ocean swells. Vedder himself is a capable surfer and has strong ties to the international surfing community. The upscale festival featured two main stages of music that rotated bands, handpicked by Vedder, for most of the day. Besides the diverse line up of music, the festival featured copious amounts of gourmet food booths, food trucks, and beverage booths. A third stage, the Storyteller Stage, featured lectures by various environmental heroes and local historians. Occasionally acoustic acts featuring original songwriters would also appear on the stage. An elaborate silent auction featured signed musical instruments, surfboards, framed photographs, and more. Funds raised benefited San Onofre Parks Foundation and The Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association. Altogether the venue offered up one of the most comfortable and relaxing atmospheres of any outdoor music festival in the country.
The music began in the early afternoon Friday under muggy, overcast skies. The sold-out three-day festival brought more than 45,000 to Doheny, and by the time the first band took the MainStage, there was already a good size crowd gathered. Fontaines D.C., a post-punk rock band from Dublin, Ireland opened the main stage with a fiery guitar drenched rock set. The band is somehow reminiscent of Manchester’s iconic rock group Joy Division. Lead singer Grian Chatten seems to channel the spirit of Ian Curtis, the former singer of Joy Division. The five-piece band played a rambunctious short set that seemed strangely out of place on a warm Doheny beach afternoon. The fiery Irish band looked like they would be more at home in a smoke-filled pub in Dublin playing a midnight set. But one of the things that make the Ohana festival so special is the unlikely grouping of unique and exciting new performers in a setting that may be out of their usual comfort zone. The band which began their interaction as a poetry group played songs from their new album Dogrel, invigorating the early-bird crowd.
By the time local Orange county troubadour took over on the smaller stage, a crowd had gathered there as well to see Dustin Kensrue. Meantime many concert fans lounged on blankets or beach chairs in the back-lawn area, while others took advantage of the large bleachers set up right on the sandy beach. From the top of the bleachers, there was a spectacular view of both stages as well as the Doheny cove and nearby coastline.
Kensrue, the lead singer of the rock band Thrice, brought a folksier vibe to Ohana with a small group of backing musicians. The prolific songwriter has no less than five albums to his credit and played a sampling of his tunes in a short well-received set.
The next performer to take the mainstage reflected the atmosphere of the Ohana festival perfectly. The guru-like Venezuelan-American musician and graphic artist Devendra Banhart fronted a large band of amazingly talented global musicians. Banhart did a great job of carrying mellow vibes during the show, beginning with a Yogi like cal from meditation at the beginning of his set. He repeatedly asked the audience to live in the moment and be aware of their beautiful surroundings. The mellow, happy go lucky nature of Bahnharts music actually downplayed the immense talent gathered on the stage.
As the sun began to poke out of the clouds in the late afternoon and the crowd began to surge, the New York glam rock band Sunflower Bean took over the small stage. Lead vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming brought a retro Blondie like vibe to the music while guitarist Nick Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber added a distinctive Psychedelic flare. A young crowd pressed tightly to the front of the stage, screaming their approval.
New York crooner LP wowed the crowd with her impeccable vocal skills next on the MainStage while the setting sun bathed her n an orange glow. The indie-rock singer has been making music since the 90’s just under the fickle popstar radar. While she has penned hits for pop stars like The Backstreet Boys, Cher, and Rihanna, her immense talent as a singer is mostly unknown to pop radio audiences. But with a crowd full of loyal fans, the singer proceeded to lead a rock band in one to them out impressive sets of the festival. Singing sometimes in a wail remnant of a young Robert Plant and at others, in a raspy folkie voice, the performer lit up the stage with a riveting performance. No doubt, the set garnered the singer quite a few new fans at the Ohana Festival.
White Reaper, a garage punk band from Louisville, Kentucky, closed out the small stage with a high energy set that sounded right at home in Southern California. Lead singer and guitarist Tony Esposito belted out tunes that sound like surf punk much to the delight of many in the crowd.
As the sun waned and twilight took over the warm night sky, the small stage closed down, and the focus for the rest of the evening was on the MainStage. Australian sensation Tash Sultana played the next set, which was truly stunning. The singer took the stage well aware that many in the crowd were unaware of her music. “Thanks very much, for those who don’t know me. I’m Tash Sultana, and people think I’m a DJ, but I’m not a DJ. It feels really chill out here.” With a modern take on the one-person band persona, the singer and multi-instrumentalist used live loops to create a wall of intriguing sound. Performing original songs like “Mystik," “Free Mind," “Notion," and “Jungle," the barefoot singer pranced about the stage while frequently beaming a wild smile. Few performers seem to have as much fun on the stage as this talented young millennial. The singer samples her sounds as she plays various instruments, including guitar, bass, trumphet, electric violin, flute, and percussions.
After a long intermission, a large crowd packed tightly around the main stage, eagerly anticipating the final set of the night by New York rockers, The Strokes. In keeping with the band's feisty image, the group delayed the set for 15 minutes before making a fiery entry and bringing a high energy all be it short set to the crowd. The band includes guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti and fiesta frontman Julian Casablancas. The group tore through a hit-laden set in short order including, “Someday," “Last Nite," and “Reptilia.” Halfway through their set, the Strokes surprised the audience bringing Eddie Vedder to the stage for his first collaboration of the festival. Vedder joined the band to play the Strokes’ song “Juicebox," as well as a Pearl Jam tune “Hard to Imagine.” Vedder quipped, “Julian asked if I would join the fellas here,” as he took the stage. “One of the reasons I accepted was because it would give me the opportunity to thank all the great artists here today, especially the Strokes.”
Vedder also dedicated “Hard to Imagine” to all the activists working to pass stricter gun laws across the nation. “They’ve asked to do a version of this song, and I’d like to dedicate it to all the people in Everytown, Mom’s Demand Action, and Student’s Demand Action, who are working so hard for common-sense gun laws. Respect the right of ownership, but also preserve our right to feel safe in our towns, our communities, our schools, and our homes. We will persevere!” It was a fitting finale to the opening day of the Ohana festival 2019.