Let it out: Coming together and letting go at BeachLife Festival
by Mark McDermott and Rachel Reeves
By the time the Marleys stepped onto the Hightide stage at BeachLife Festival Sunday night, 51 bands had performed several hundred songs from morning til night over the previous three days. They sang of love and sex and drugs and beauty galore, of hellhounds, oceans, and midnight jokers, of the Land Down Under, and the moon bright on a treetop night. Singers sang about most everything human beings get up to and get down to, and after a year in which everybody was largely kept apart, just under 10,000 people came together each day and communed as only our species does — by shaking their butts, waving arms in the air, hugging, shuffling, and smiling like sunshine and togetherness were miraculous and newfound things.
And so by 9 p.m. that night, a satiated weariness prevailed as Stephen and Ziggy Marley raised their voices to sing their father’s songs.
Bob Marley, had he not died young, would have been 75 in 2019, when this festival was supposed to have occurred. The songs he sang from the time he first burst on the world stage in the mid-’60s til his death in the early ‘80s are often called (as is the enduring compilation of his work) “Songs of Freedom.” But they are also songs of sorrow and loss and, most crucially, spiritual roadmaps for keeping on in the face of crushing adversity. And so, though this performance came 18 months later than expected, the Marleys seemed to have arrived at just the right time.
The entire 90-minute set was communal, as thousands of voices joined in song. But “No Woman, No Cry,” a lamentation buttressed by the soulful chorus of the three Jamaican women taking the roles of Bob Marley’s famed “The I-Threes” (which included Stephen and Ziggy’s mother, Rita Marley) somehow took things to another level.
“Good friends we have, good friends we’ve lost, along the way,” sang Stephen Marley, his voice an eerily exact replica of the ragged, world-weary yet resolute soulful timbre his father possessed. “In this great future, you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears, I say…No woman, no cry.”
Few present did not feel the pull of tears in this moment. Before there were books, much less computers and televisions, songs carried the human experience across time and through generations. And now, after a time of unfathomable suffering and loss, and rising consciousness of the lingering history out of which Bob Marley’s songs first arrived, his music gains resonance, almost majestically so.
BeachLife co-founder Allen Sanford, who along with his investors took an enormous risk throwing a festival during the uncertainty of an unpredictable and crushingly ongoing pandemic, said that this moment was exactly why making BeachLife happen right now was worth the gamble.
“That Marley set was…goosebumps. It really was,” Sanford said. “And specifically ‘No Woman, No Cry.’ Because I don’t think there was one person out there that didn’t feel connected, and that was exactly what we needed — to reconnect.”
The Marleys sang a selection of their father’s songs that felt as if they were written for this moment. The songs transcend time. “One Love”, “Three Little Birds”, “Could You Be Loved”, “Positive Vibration”, “Keep On Moving”, “Exodus”, “No More Trouble”, and “Coming in from the Cold” — all resonate with people from any time and any place, but especially for people who have just survived hard times.
Stephen Marley, during “Get Up, Stand Up,” led an ancient call and response between himself and a few thousand people. “Ya yoo yo yo,” he sang, then held the mic up for a multitudinous echo, over and over again, as if he didn’t want this moment to pass, as people swayed and danced and wept. It was the sound of joyful togetherness.
BeachLife was bookended by headliners who had the power to bring people into such a joyous communal state, although Friday night’s penultimate performance was a decidedly more carnal kind of communion. Jane’s Addiction rontman Perry Farrell was explicit about this, and many other things.
Jane’s Addiction, with strippers floating above the stage on hooks at one point and an ongoing trippy montage that included appearances by Abraham Lincoln, a stock market ticker, a woman bodybuilder, running pigs, and more strippers, was a pulsing and pounding rock ‘n’ roll spectacle.
Farrell was dressed in a dark jumpsuit with strings of beads that formed glitzy wings when he raised his arms, making him look like a cross between Dracula, Liberace, Bowie, and some sort of highly sexualized predator bird, by turns ranted (about our fouling of the ocean), flirted (he urged women to flash their breasts at him but only succeeded in a guy showing him his bare nipples), and professed love — for his thunderous drummer, Stephen Perkins (and his underwear), for sex, sex, and more sex, and especially for the thousands of people roaring before him.
“We are all just separated. It sucks,” he said. “We are together. It’s a rare thing.”
At the end of the show, Farrell couldn’t even bring himself to play the ritual of leaving the stage to be called back for an encore.
“I’m not even going to get off the stage,” he said. “I’m going to tell you right now, I love you guys so much. I missed you so much.”
Earlier in the set, Farrell had concisely summed up what the entire experience of the festival would be.
“Let it out,” he said, in the closest thing to a quiet hush uttered all night, head bent almost reverentially to the crowd. “Let it out.”
BeachLife drew together many strands of wildly different kinds of music and music lovers into one resplendent and somehow coherently unified quilt. There were moments throughout the festival that resonated in different ways.
People raised their fists at the Tomorrows Bad Seeds show to recognize the continued oppression out of which reggae music emerged. Original fans of The Grateful Dead, many of them white-haired and clothed in tie-dye, filled in to see Melvin Seals and JGB, the band that formed to continue the legacy of the Jerry Garcia Band (of which Seals was a member).
They swayed and cried at the ode to Bob Marley, feeling a mixture of sorrow at the painful truth of his lyrics and relief to be experiencing the force of live music again, after a prolonged period of restrictions on large gatherings of people.
Festival-goers flew in from other states to attend, selling out hotels on the waterfront after a year in which the City of Redondo Beach lost $8.5 million in hotel tax because no one was booking rooms. People came from Nevada, Montana, Texas, New York, Maine, and all points in between.
But over 70 percent of the attendees were local. Many residents of the Beach Cities were encountering each other for the first time since early 2020, when the pandemic became global.
“So fun walking around and seeing friends who you have not seen,” said Robin Lambert of Redondo Beach, an avid concert-goer in more typical years.
“It is so cool having such a huge festival in our community,” said Danielle Wilson, also of Redondo Beach.
For people born and bred in the South Bay, who remember field trips to Seaside Lagoon as schoolkids and Pennywise shows before the band made it big, the festival felt like a dream come true. For them, to see world-renowned performers on stages framing the Redondo Beach waterfront on a sunny summer day was somewhat surreal.
“Shout out to the people putting on BeachLife in our own backyard,” Moi Juarez, vocalist for Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds, told the Friday crowd. “We’ve been dreaming about this shit our whole lives.”
The festival featured musicians known in all parts of the planet, but it was also carefully designed to celebrate the music of the South Bay. Mark McGrath, frontman of Sugar Ray, acknowledged this: “There’s something magical about BeachLife Festival,” he told the crowd. “You know what I mean? They care about the artists, they care about the people here, and most importantly, they care about the City of Redondo Beach, California.”
Local bands played on all of the festival’s stages, on all three days. Kevin Sousa opened the festival.
Jim Lindberg of Pennywise played an acoustic set with the legendary drummer Davey Ladder and guitarist Zacc West, who grew up going to Pennywise shows on the Fourth of July in Hermosa Beach.
“It’s kind of surreal and it’s so rad,” West said of BeachLife Festival. “I’m really honored to be part of this festival, but more so that Jim asked me to be part of it. Like, that’s really humbling for me. I was beside myself when he asked.”
Members of local reggae band Fortunate Youth brought their kids out onto the stage, after playing a new single chronicling the “South Bay dream.”
“A lot of big, big legendary bands are at this festival,” vocalist Dan Kelly said. “Big ups to BeachLife for putting us up here, you know? We’re from this beautiful town. We love you guys. It’s great to be home.”
Musicians from further afield also spoke of personal connections to the South Bay. Farrell, of Jane’s Addiction, recalled moving to California to surf and ending up homeless, living in his car, before getting a job as a busboy at Chart House and moving to 6th Street in Hermosa Beach.
“I’ll always remember Redondo Beach,” he said. “I’ll always remember you guys.”
Garrett Dutton, frontman for G. Love & Special Sauce, carried Byron McMackin of Pennywise onto the stage, calling the South Bay punk band his bros. Brett Dennen spoke of the Beach Cities’ ethos he has come to know during previous trips to perform at BeachLife Festival.
“I was late getting here,” he said, explaining the technical snafu that had occurred on his plane from Monterey earlier that morning. “But I knew it was gonna be all good. Because Redondo is so chill. It’s BeachLife, and that’s what beach life is, right? Chill. Cruisy.”
Ben Harper of the Innocent Criminals changed the first lyric of his chart-topping song “Steal My Kisses” — “I pulled into Redondo Beach,” he sang, prompting a wave of shrieking — and offered a shout-out to the city’s mayor, Bill Brand, who had used Harper’s music to fuel him through the bleakest days of stage-four cancer.
This is the power of music. McGrath of Sugar Ray made this point when he commemorated the date on which he performed — the twentieth anniversary of the day airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers. Six months after that, he told the crowd, he was on a plane when a woman approached him and offered him a note. In it, she explained that she lost her husband, a devoted Sugar Ray fan, on September 11.
“She said, ‘I believe, Mark, you were put on this flight to calm me down because my husband … knew how much I was afraid to fly,’” he told the crowd. “I thought about the power of music and how much music means to people.” He framed the letter.
“I don’t wanna bring everybody down,” he said. “I just think I’d be a bit remiss not to remember all those souls we lost 20 years ago. … Just remember every moment is precious of every single day.”
So, too, is music, Save Ferris vocalist Monique Powell told the crowd.
“So grateful for music,” she said. “I will never take it for granted again, and neither should you.”
“Just a side note to say that this will — up here will always be Juan Nelson’s house,” Ben Harper said, referring to his bassist of 27 years who passed away in June. “The Innocent Criminals — every time we get a chance to play from here forward, we get to raise his name in sonic praise.”
One of the most outright gleeful moments came Friday afternoon when Larkin Poe performed. Something that was unusual about BeachLife generally was how many bands sang so-called covers — other artist’s songs — including Lindberg singing Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Portugal.The Man performing the Stones’s “Gimme Shelter,” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,¨ and Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers singing Tom Petty’s “The Hardest Part.” The Counting Crows, who headlined Saturday night, had probably the biggest hit of their own, “Mister Jones,” of anyone at BeachLife (except perhaps Men At Work), yet it was their cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” that had the most people singing along. Larkin Poe encapsulated this notion — that once a song is out in the world, it becomes a part of all of us, not just the person who wrote it — with rollicking performances of the Allman Brothers “Rambling Man” and Robert Johnson’s “Come Into My Kitchen.” These are songs that come from an always growing American songbook, all the way from the nation’s hellbent beginnings through slavery’s end and on into the civil rights movement and the cultural revolution that was the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll. Songs are more than mere art, but vehicles built for shared experience.
“What a treat, y’all, to be able to come together and celebrate the things that really matter,” said Larkin Poe’s Rebecca Lovell, who with her ripping slide guitar-playing sister Megan was among BeachLife’s biggest revelations.
Cage the Elephant performed one of the most effervescent sets of the festival Friday night at the Lowtide stage, which was located in the sand of the Seaside Lagoon, with the dried-up fountain rising 100 feet out from stage right. A half moon hung over the ocean, and illuminated palm trees framed the scene — what other festival has this to offer? — as Cage frontman Matt Shultz commandeered the proceedings in a way only an actual rock star is able to do. He strutted, leapt, crouched, pirouetted through a mysteriously shrouding light, his bare torso bending like an instrument, channeling Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and of course Mick Jagger. He used his shirt like a cape, and every so often returned low to the ground, where he had a couple Target bags containing garments and god knows what else. The band, which has earned multiple Grammy awards, somehow fuses psychedelic and even Southern rock with hip hop, New Wave, Bowie, and the Stones — like an evolution of rock ‘n’ roll that takes in five decades of musical history and comes out the other side with something totally new. But the main thing is Cage the Elephant has got soul, and the raw power to bring together thousands of people in one soulful sway. Their hit “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” drove the crowd into delirium, but it was “Telescope” that delivered an almost wrenchingly beautiful moment. The crowd joined in the chorus:
“I don’t think you understand
There’s nowhere left to turn
Walls keep breaking
Time is like a leaf in the wind
Either it’s time well spent
Or time I’ve wasted
Don’t waste it.”
Shultz isn’t big on stage banter, but the few words he spoke had weight.
“We are here together,” he said. “This will only happen once. I appreciate you.”
Sanford, the festival founder, has endured a hell of a year. His businesses, live music and restaurants, were economically ravaged by the pandemic, he himself had bouts with both Covid and pneumonia, and less than a month before the festival he tore ligaments in his ankle. Which meant that, according to the pedometer on his phone, during the three days of BeachLife Sanford walked 47,500 steps basically on one leg. He had his first drink of the festival when the Marleys started singing.
“It wasn’t until the Marley set, literally until that set, that I had a glass of wine, and I just started going, ‘Yeah, this is what I wanted,’” he said.
Sanford, a South Bay native, has been building towards BeachLife all his life without even really knowing it. Like so many, music became more than something he listened to during his teenage years; it became something he lived for. He was 21 years old and working as a busboy at Patrick Molloy’s on Hermosa’s Pier Plaza when he made a bold proposal to the owner, Fred Hahn, to manage the place. Hahn said no, but Sanford’s counterproposal succeeded: he’d manage the bar for no pay for three months just to show what he could do. Thus began his career booking music; as he would do for the next 20 years, his hallmark was finding outsized talent to play small places. He brought Eek-a-Mouse, Common Sense, and Slightly Stoopid to Patrick Molloy’s (the latter who were as yet little known, with a booking fee of $50 and a case of Red Bull). Eventually, in 2008, he’d open Saint Rocke, where the likes of Ziggy Marley, Stephen Marley, Amos Lee, Pennywise, and Bush performed in what was surely their smallest venue for many years — at 280 seats, the place was so small that both Leon Russell and Mickey Hart arrived with their large tour buses, a couple years apart, and refused to play when they realized Saint Rocke’s diminutive size. Sanford got a taste of larger, outdoor shows when he took over and reinvented the Hermosa Beach Summer Concerts. But as so often happens in life, something that seemed like defeat at the time gave way to something better — Sanford and the City of Hermosa Beach parted ways acrimoniously, which led to Sanford walking around the Seaside Lagoon one day and imagining a genuine music festival in a place where few could have imagined it was possible.
“The City Council in Hermosa did me probably the best favor they could have done me, which was to motivate me to move what I was building,” Sanford said. “Just unconsciously, I was trying to build the BeachLife down there. And I was struggling just with how to make it a business and to make it to scale and make it bigger and bigger. The fact that they didn’t want it down there gave me the motivation to push hard, and into Redondo.”
Timing was everything. In 2017, Bill Brand had just been elected mayor after leading a movement that halted the development of a large mall — or lifestyle center, in the parlance of the trade — on the Redondo waterfront. He’d always argued the waterfront should be a place of congregation, not large development, and certainly not big box store shopping. He is also a surfer who deeply loves music, and was therefore the perfect political partner to help make BeachLife come to life.
“The only credit I can take, along with many other members of the community, is that there wasn’t a four story parking structure and a movie theater in the way of something cool like this happening,” Brand said.
“I always wanted to do things, not bigger, but in a more meaningful way,” Sanford said. “And that always means the artists who are part of the songbook that we are talking about, right? These artists are artists, and famous for a reason. It’s because they create great music that transcends all the boundaries. You can’t make meaning unless you are doing it at a scale at which the whole community is feeling it at the same time.”
Brand and Sanford say the same things in different ways — that BeachLife arose not just from Sanford’s vision and the mayor’s political leadership, but, in a deeper way, from the community itself. Brand quotes the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” she said. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Brand also recently endured tough times. Only days after the first BeachLife in 2019, he experienced a seizure while on a plane flying to a conference (and surf trip) to Mexico. It turned out he had lung cancer so advanced that it was also in his brain. His prognosis was not good, but through the miracles of modern medicine, he found experimental treatment that fought back the cancer. But by the time this BeachLife rolled around, he had battle scars to show for it, months of agony in which the pain and discomfort was often so intense he couldn’t sleep. One of the most effective balms he found during this time was music, and specifically Ben Harper’s music, which he encountered via an NPR podcast for the first time during one of those periods where he could do little but lay in a bed.
When he saw Harper was in the lineup, he called up Sanford. Brand told him he couldn’t accept any perks at the festival, as an elected leader, but he did have one favor to ask.
“I told him I just want to meet Ben Harper before the show,” Brand said. “And he asked why. I explained to him how I had been in the throes of dealing with the pain from my cancer — I had bone cancer in my back, shoulder, and wrists, and the painkillers only did so much. I was really having a rough time, and I listened to Ben and Ellen Harper’s music — his mom — and it was just so soothing. It just meant so much to me. And I wanted to thank him.”
Sunday night, Brand and his wife, Deirdre, met Harper shortly before he went on stage. Brand told him how much his music had eased his pain, and was surprised at how kindly, present and empathetic Harper was — he’d expected a brief fist bump and a kind word, but Harper talked with him for 10 minutes, and thanked him profusely for making the effort to share his story.
“I told him, well, I am thanking you for a lot of other people,” Brand told him. “I´m just lucky enough to be able to do it personally.”
In the end, Brand and his wife and Harper shared a long hug. They were all crying. What Brand didn’t know at the time was that Harper himself was emerging from a dark time, only now performing again after the pandemic, and doing so for the first time without his dear comrade in musical arms, Juan Nelson. Healing happens in many ways, often unexpectedly, through music.
“There is power in music like his, and a lot of others, not just to have fun, or rock out, but to soothe and comfort and make you stop and think,” Brand said. “It’s extremely powerful, and that’s what these music festivals are all about. It’s giving the community a time to take a break, look around, enjoy themselves, see each other, reconnect, reset themselves, and get back out there, and realize there is a lot more going on than what we see day-to-day. That’s the power of music.”
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