The festival as a community reunion
by Rachel Reeves
For those of us who grew up in Redondo Beach, BeachLife Festival still feels surreal, even after its fourth cycle.
It’s still weird and wonderful to watch tens of thousands of people stream into what we knew as Seaside Lagoon, the site of our elementary-school field trips, to watch bands whose songs people everywhere can recite.
“I mean, come on, Gwen Stefani?” said Moi Juarez, vocalist of local band Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds, which has played every BeachLife since the festival’s inception in 2019. “This is the beach where we grew up–skating all over that area, surfing all over that area, working in places all along there, playing all those bars. … It’s just awesome, honestly.”
To anyone who attends, BeachLife Festival is impressive. To those of us who remember soccer and baseball team parties at Seaside Lagoon, it’s “pretty wild,” in the assessment of my fourth-grade teacher, who I ran into on Saturday night before Sublime with Rome’s set.
The last time Mr. Ross and I were on that waterfront together, I was nine, splashing around in a urine-filled pool of stagnant water with my friends, while he yelled at us not to run on the slippery concrete floor of what’s now the Speakeasy stage. Saturday night, we took an iPhone selfie in tasteful, highly designed festival grounds featuring $12 beers and major, internationally recognized artists.
“It’s just wild that this is in our backyard,” Mr. Ross said when we spoke the next day. “So much nostalgia mixed with so much fun. It just couldn’t have been more fun.”
When Mr. Ross was our teacher, my friends and I were obsessed with No Doubt. We spent our weekends choreographing dances to tracks from Tragic Kingdom, my first-ever album. All the lyrics came flooding back for us on Saturday night as we watched Gwen Stefani (who looks precisely as hot now as she did then) perform her own songs and the music of No Doubt.
“You’re my homies!” Stefani told the crowd. “This is my hometown.” And it tickled our inner children to hear that, even though we know she’s from Fullerton. “It was like woah, this is so nostalgic, being in this childhood place with childhood music,” recalls Kaitie Kim, a first-time BeachLife-goer who’s been my friend since kindergarten and still lives in Redondo Beach. “The whole thing blew my mind.”
Last weekend, we heard the name of our city in the mouths of Mavis Staples and John Fogerty, icons in American music for over a half-century. “Shoutout to f&(^!n Redondo Beach!” Sublime’s new frontman, Rome Ramirez, said Saturday night, prompting a sea of people to erupt into cheers.
On Sunday morning, we stood on the sand where, sometime in the late 90s, the seventh-grade boy at our middle school cracked his head open and had to be ambulanced away, and there we watched descendants of original Wailers sing songs that resonate around the globe. We danced to The Black Keys in view of King Harbor Marina and to Sublime against the backdrop of the Palos Verdes peninsula.
Many of us, including the festival’s founder, Allen Sanford, and VP of Operations, Jonny Simms, consider the area where the festival takes place a prominent part of our childhood and adolescent experience.
“I can still remember being five or six years old and slipping on the algae on the fountain in the lagoon,” Sanford said. “I remember in my brain what it looked like. Fast forward 40 years and the only thing different is BeachLife.”
BeachLife Festival is a veritable institution by now, solidly positioned on the national circuit. KROQ runs contests for tickets. People fly to Redondo Beach specifically for the event, such as Tara Robbins, who flies in from Las Vegas for every festival. BeachLife has grown into a hub for music lovers all over Southern California and the country but it’s also a binding agent for Beach Cities communities.
“It’s more than just a music event to go to,” said Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand. “It gives so many residents from various communities–Redondo, Hermosa, Manhattan, Torrance–it gives everybody an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and make new friends.”
“I was tripping out on the amount of friends I saw, people I work with here in the district, teachers, principals, friends from all walks of life,” Mr. Ross told me. “I saw people from all different chapters of my life.”
I ran into my boss, my parents’ friends, people I went to high school with, and people I worked with at places like Chart House and the Easy Reader. I knew people who were on staff, serving food, making art, and taking photos.
“BeachLife just really brings our community together,” said Redondo Beach resident Karen Thomas. She and her husband Dave are among the owners of boats in the basin adjacent to Seaside Lagoon that host BeachLife parties. Their friends and neighbors, including my parents, gathered last weekend to eat, drink, and listen to songs they grew up on. “Fogerty sounded like he was right there on our boat,” Dave said.
Julie and Dave Mazor, also my parents’ friends, have been volunteering at BeachLife since 2019 so they can experience the magic of the music without paying the entry fee. For hours on Saturday, they stood at the corner of Harbor Dr. and Beryl, answering visitors’ questions about entry and will call; Dave stood there for seven hours.
“After our shift, we looked out over the crowd for Gwen Stefani and there were so many people, and that was just really cool,” Julie said. “The crowd was so deep. It’s so cool that there are artists who bring that many people out performing right here in our backyard.”
All weekend, locals gathered around the gate on the north side of the venue, vying for space so they could see the Low Tide stage in the distance through the steel bars. People who couldn’t attend watched the livestream, exchanging enthusiastic comments in the chat box.
People from all walks of life–babies, toddlers, teenagers, and white-haired music lovers with walkers–attended the festival. There was something for everyone. There was a kids’ zone and there were performers older than 80. Ours was not the only generation that experienced nostalgia at BeachLife Festival.
A childhood friend, Allyson Welch, went Sunday night with her dad, Mike, to see Fogerty perform the music of Credence Clearwater Revival for the first time since regaining legal rights to his songs. Together they experienced music they’d shared as father and daughter performed by Fogerty and his sons; Sanford called this intergenerational show a symbol of what BeachLife is all about.
“His first album came out when I was in high school,” Mike told me. “I had all his albums. Bought some on 8-track, some on CD. So I loved it. I thought it was great.”
“I wish my dad would’ve lived to see Fogerty do this,” Mr. Ross said of his late father, who lived in Manhattan Beach and loved the South Bay. “I was just thinking of my childhood and how much those songs mattered to people my parents’ age. I was saying to my son, Addison, who’s into history, that there’s so much history in these songs. Like ‘Run through the Jungle’–that was an antiwar song.”
Because of the variety of musicians performing and music performed–old, young, time-honored, up-and-coming, bluegrass, rock, soul, reggae, pop–there was music for all tastes. There were love songs, coming-of-age choruses, and anthems of protest that have impacted and energized people throughout history.
The Wailers’ current singer, Mitchell Brunings, told everyone to “breathe in peace, love, and unity,” and to exhale song. He also told the audience to “jump because we are happy and we are free.” Everyone jumped. And that’s the power of music.
“It’s crazy how music just brings us together,” Stefani said during her set on Saturday night.
The music brought us together, but so did the intentional planning by the people who created and delivered BeachLife Festival.
On Sunday, Rob Light, managing partner of Creative Artists Agency, one of the largest agencies in the world, visited BeachLife and told Sanford that what he’s done best is to “hyper-focus” on the surrounding community.
Partly this is because Sanford grew up in the South Bay, partly it’s because he knows what it’s like to run a small local business, and partly it’s because he’s worked closely with the City of Redondo Beach in bringing his vision to life.
“I’m a small business owner so I know what it’s like,” Sanford said. “I don’t like big box stores and I try to support the small guy on the corner every chance I get, so that philosophy runs through this festival. From the little cookie seller that we know from San Pedro to Kevin Souza to Jeff Jones of Quality Seafood–this represents our community. We own this community, not the corporations, and I want that to be prevalent within the festival.”
Though BeachLife is a professionally produced event advertised on billboards hours away, it’s still infused with the ethos and flavor of the South Bay. Every year, there are local musicians on the bill. This year, the audio engineer was local. Local eateries serve the 12,000 people who attend BeachLife daily. Local artists create art, surfboards, and skateboard decks. Local businesses sell merchandise. Local products are included in gift bags for premium ticketholders.
Simms, VP of operations, said this was the first year a local team actually designed the festival with a CAD drafter and did all the production itself.
“It pulled some heartstrings, for sure,” he said, reflecting on what it was like to deliver an event of the magnitude of BeachLife in a place where he grew up.
“This weekend was truly built and attended by people that want to live the beach life,” he added. “The whole thing is kind of an epicenter of South Bay culture, which is about beachside living, listening to fun music with your friends, toes in the sand, sun out–all these things that make the South Bay what it is.”
For Jason Cervantes, who opened Lil’ Vegerie, a vegan restaurant in South Redondo, last year with his fiancee Scarlett, who’s also my childhood friend, serving food at BeachLife felt like a pinnacle.
“Just having the restaurant itself, it feels like we’re part of the community, but to add the energy of a festival and all the music and all the history and all these songs and artists, to parlay what we do at the restaurant in South Redondo and plug into something so big and massive was literally overwhelming,” he said. “I can’t even begin to describe it.”
BeachLife Festival continues to grow, year after year, as it gets more heavily publicized and more enthusiastically recommended.
On Saturday night, in the crowd, there was a lot of talk about the crowd. “I’ve never seen so many people at BeachLife,” a festivalgoer said during Sublime with Rome’s set.
“It’s gaining in popularity,” Mayor Bill Brand said. “I think it hit its limit on Saturday night in terms of attendance, but the organizers and our police force and fire department worked well together and continue to work together to assess everything that’s involved in holding an event like that.” Sanford said that the collaboration between the mayor and councilmembers, Police Chief Joe Hoffman, and Fire Chief Patrick Butler ensured everyone felt safe and everything went smoothly.
Despite at-capacity attendance, most attendees had only praise to share: there were enough clean porta-potties and there was enough water, food, seating, and shade. All of this was intentional; long lines are among Sanford’s personal pet peeves, so it’s important to him that there are enough bars and enough bathrooms. Twelve staff and 200 volunteers worked to deliver an event that felt easy and effortless to people who attended. It wasn’t, of course; Sanford recorded 110,000 steps on his watch this weekend.
For the mayor of Redondo Beach, BeachLife Festival feels personal, like a symbol of hope and goodness.
A large part of his campaign and platform centered on Measure C, the culmination of a contentious years-long fight against commercial development on the waterfront. The measure passed in 2017, essentially quashing a plan for a movie theater and mall.
“After Measure C passed, Allen called and said, I have a better idea,’” Brand recalls. “So he laid out the whole thing for me. We talked for about an hour. I said, you tell me how we can stay out of the way, how we can work with you to make this happen. And it went from there. It’s amazing how one meeting like that turned into this.”
Sanford said his bond with Brand is cemented by a love for the South Bay culture.
“We both agree that people should be able to enjoy the ocean and we agree that an active lifestyle is about living outside and breathing fresh air,” Sanford said. “He’s finally achieved his vision and humbly I think BeachLife was part of that. It showed the community that there’s a different way to develop something and now, for once, Redondo Beach has something that nobody is arguing over politically. I don’t think anybody is saying BeachLife is not a positive thing for the community.”
While Brand sees BeachLife as a symbol of triumph, the highlight of this year’s festival, for him, was meeting Mavis Staples.
“That was so exciting,” he said. “I’ve been a fan of hers for so long. For an 83-year-old music icon like that to be willing to just give me a hug before the event–that, for me personally, was the highlight of BeachLife. I was lucky enough to be the mayor and have her be willing to meet me.”
During her set, Staples addressed Brand, calling him handsome and saying, through peals of deep laughter, she thought when they first met that she had a shot at being “the first lady,” until she met his wife.
“That was a treat,” Staples told the crowd. “That was a treat for me. You don’t meet mayors every day.”
Everyone I talked to or overheard talking at the festival agreed with Sanford that BeachLife is a positive thing for the community; my fourth-grade teacher said the next day he was still on “such a high” after the weekend.
“The Redondo Beach Pier was such a big part of my life–going down there to Naja’s for a beer or to hang out with friends on their boat–and this just adds to the memories,” said Bryan Stone, the bassist of Hard Rooster, whose kids are fourth-generation Redondo Beach natives. “My wife and I stepped out for lunch this weekend and we’re sitting there with the music in the background looking over the harbor and just thinking, we live in such a rad place. BeachLife has really added to what it means to be from Redondo.”
“Every single time I find myself walking onto that campus, I feel amazed and thankful and so grateful that they were able to bring something like that so close to home,” said Laura Childs, a Redondo Beach resident who’s attended every BeachLife Festival. For the 27 years of her oldest son’s life, she’s gone to the KROQ Weenie Roast in Irvine; as he got older, she’d buy tickets for several of his friends to come, too. Now, her son has moved away from the area, but he returns to Redondo Beach to attend BeachLife with his mom.
“It was as much fun to see everybody dancing and hooting and hollering as it was to see the bands play,” Childs said. “I can’t think about BeachLife without smiling. We’re better because of it.” ER