Is the Santa Monica Pier’s Twilight Concert Series becoming too popular for its own good?

RÜFÜS DU SOLBy Josh Herwitt //

RÜFÜS DU SOL with Marc Baker //
Santa Monica Pier – Santa Monica, CA
August 11th, 2016 //

Nothing says summer in Los Angeles quite like the Twilight Concert Series. Whether you live near the beach or not, the free shows at the Santa Monica Pier have become one of LA’s best summertime traditions over the years.

But as we found out at BØRNS’ headlining performance (read our review of the show here) last month, the series may be getting too big for its britches. At least part of that sentiment can be attributed to NPR member station KCRW’s curation process, which seemingly gets better and better with each passing year. And of course, it’s worth noting that the recent tragedies across this country have only forced increased security measures and a larger presence from local law enforcement.

That said, the crowd that arrived last Thursday to take in RÜFÜS DU SOL’s show was unlike anything I or anyone else had seen before. Whatever the attendance number was, whether it was 40,000 or 80,000, simply didn’t matter. The fact was, the concert viewing area on the pier couldn’t handle the sheer number of bodies that showed up to watch the Australian alt-dance outfit perform before it headed off to Palm Springs for a special late-night set at Splash House the following day.

What transpired at the pier this time was everything we experienced at the BØRNS show four weeks prior and worse, if that’s even possible. At one point, I didn’t even know if I was going to photograph RÜFÜS DU SOL because the fire marshal shut down the backstage VIP area due to overcrowding (when I finally got escorted back in, the photo pit was completely packed to the gills with mostly VIP guests who were there to watch the show). Had I known it was going to be that much trouble to re-enter, I never would have left to say hello to a friend after opener Marc Baker played for no more than 30 minutes, leaving a longer changeover than expected. I guess I underestimated just how far the Aussie trio has come since first releasing its RÜFÜS EP in early 2011.

RÜFÜS DU SOL

“RÜFÜS … RÜFÜS DU WHO?” some of you might be saying. Though die-hard fans may laugh at those who haven’t heard of the band by now, I’ll be honest — I hadn’t heard of them either until April when I noticed they were listed on this year’s Coachella lineup. Clearly the joke is on me then, because after everything I witnessed from Tyrone Lindqvist (vocals, guitar), Jon George (keyboards) and James Hunt (drums), this shouldn’t have served as my introduction. Yet, there I was, sandwiched in between a bunch of bodies with my camera equipment in tow as RÜFÜS ran through material off their 2013 debut LP Atlas and this year’s follow-up Bloom, both of which have topped the charts in their home country.

There’s something about RÜFÜS DU SOL that makes them undeniably catchy. At times, their sun-drenched, beat-driven songs sound like a cross between Disclosure, Gorgon City and Bob Moses, with Lindqvist hooking listeners with his smooth vocal stylings. Knowing how popular those aforementioned groups have become, it made perfect sense that the pier was as packed as it was for RÜFÜS less than a week after they performed for the first time at Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival (read our review here) in San Francisco.

So, is there anything that can be done to keep the Thursday night crowds at the Santa Monica Pier to a more reasonable level going forward? If it means having to issue tickets — either on a first-come-first-serve basis or even for a small fee — for those who want to watch the show on the pier, then so be it. And while that change may not happen this year with only four shows left, don’t be surprised if it happens in 2017, assuming the Twilight Concert Series returns for its 33rd edition next summer.

After all, when in doubt, you can always still catch the show from the sand.

BØRNS doesn’t need Taylor Swift’s help to prove he’s one of music’s fastest-rising stars

BØRNSBy Josh Herwitt //

BØRNS with Porches //
Santa Monica Pier – Santa Monica, CA
July 14th, 2016 //

When the Twilight Concert Series announced the artist lineup for its 32nd edition this spring, it was safe to say that KCRW had curated one of its best rosters to date. In the last few years, the NPR member station on the campus of Santa Monica College has undoubtedly upped its game, booking buzz-worthy acts from a wide variety of musical genres for 10 straight weeks starting in July. From reggae and soul to Latin and disco, live music at the Santa Monica Pier on Thursday nights has become a summer staple in Los Angeles.

But in all my years attending the Twilight Concert Series’ shows, never have I seen the Santa Monica Pier like it was last Thursday when I arrived with more than an hour to spare before BØRNS’ headlining set. The concert viewing area, for one, was already at maximum capacity, forcing security and local law enforcement to block the main entrance and not allow anyone else in. The problem for me was, the only way to reach the media check-in tent to receive my credentials was through the same entry point into the concert. I won’t get into the details of how I had to obtain my credentials for the show, but let’s just say it was far from ideal and required plenty of patience. After all, they say patience is a virtue, right?

On this night, that proverbial phrase seemingly rang true. It wasn’t just that BØRNS most likely amassed the largest attendance in the history of the Twilight Concert Series, but also the fact that it was easily one of the best shows I’ve ever witnessed at the Santa Monica Pier. One could certainly point to the opening of the Expo Line extension as a reason for the larger crowds so far this summer, which wasn’t all that noticeable during the series’ opening night with Mayer Hawthorne (read our review of the show here) just the week prior, but that would simply be underestimating the exponential rise of Garrett Borns’ eponymous project. Since he relocated to Los Angeles in 2013 and signed with Interscope Records, the Michigan native has gone from supporting modest indie bands like MisterWives to selling out shows as a headliner in a matter of a year.

BØRNS

While much of BØRNS’ ascent can be attributed to the commercial success of his 2015 debut studio album Dopamine, which peaked at No. 24 on the U.S. Billboard 200, he can also thank Taylor Swift for getting the word out there fairly early. The pop superstar gave his first single “Electric Love” a ringing endorsement on her Instagram account well over a year ago, and 723,000 likes later, the 24-year-old has continued to grow his fan base with subsequent hits like “The Emotion” and “10,000 Emerald Pools”.

At the Santa Monica Pier, BØRNS only performed the latter of those two songs while playing almost all of his 11-track LP from front to back. But it was the covers he doled out that really stole the show, winning the hearts of first-timers like myself and even more dedicated fans who knew what to expect from “Garrett the Great” as he once called himself. Starting with The Smith’s “Shoplifters of the World Unite” and taking things up a notch with Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” minutes later, he did justice to both songs, hitting the high notes in the midst of Sir Elton’s chart-topping smash with relative ease. Yet, as part of a three-song encore that opened with Dopamine cut “Clouds”, it was the last two offerings of the night that proved to be just as thrilling to hear from a songwriter with plenty of promise.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more important indie-rock band over the past decade than Arcade Fire, and not many contemporary artists have been bold enough to cover their work (the most recent one that comes to mind is Father John Misty’s rendition of “The Suburbs”). BØRNS, nevertheless, wasn’t afraid to take on one of Win Butler and company’s earliest hits, pumping the crowd full of energy for the final hurrah during “Rebellion (Lies)”. Of course, just when I thought I couldn’t be any more surprised by what I had already heard from Mr. Borns, the long-haired, bare-chested Midwesterner dropped David Bowie’s “Heroes” on us and somehow managed to give LCD Soundsystem’s cover at Coachella a run for its money. With those kind of chops in your early 20’s, who needs T-Swift’s public approval anyway?

Setlist:
Seeing Stars
Dopamine
Dug My Heart
Shoplifters of the World Unite (The Smiths cover)
10,000 Emerald Pools
Holy Ghost
Bennie and the Jets (Elton John cover)
Past Lives
Overnight Sensation
American Money
Electric Love

Encore:
Clouds
Rebellion (Arcade Fire cover)
Heroes (David Bowie cover)

Mayer Hawthorne pours his soul out to kick off Twilight Concert Series at the Santa Monica Pier

Mayer Hawthorne


Mayer Hawthorne

By Josh Herwitt //

Mayer Hawthorne with Alina Baraz //
Santa Monica Pier – Santa Monica, CA
July 7th, 2016 //

Every year when the calendar hits June, signaling the official start of summer, the weather heats up as temperatures rise across the country.

For those of us living on LA’s Westside though, that rarely ever seems to be the case these days. “May Gray” is often followed by “June Gloom,” and July forecasts aren’t always that much better. Chalk it up to climate change if you want, but the summer months in LA are feeling less and less like, well, summer now.

Take last Thursday’s show at the Santa Monica Pier for instance. With the wind picking up by the time the sun had set over the Pacific Ocean, it felt more like a night in late March than one in early July. And you could tell those who weren’t wise enough to pack a sweatshirt or jacket were definitely kicking themselves shortly after alt-R&B singer Alina Baraz’s opening set.

But even if the conditions didn’t exactly exude summer in simply a climatic sense, the annual Twilight Concert Series has always served as a helpful reminder for Angelinos that the season — whether (or “weather” in this case) it feels like it or not — is officially here. So, what better way to kick off 10 straight weeks of free live music at the beach than with Grammy-nominated artist Mayer Hawthorne?

Alina Baraz


Alina Baraz

The neo-soul singer-songwriter has come a long way since Peanut Butter Wolf signed him to his LA-based label Stone Throw Records more than a decade ago. At the time, Hawthorne had just moved to the City of Angels from his native Michigan after spending a number of years as a hip-hop DJ, most notably during the Detroit scene’s height thanks to trailblazers like J Dilla and Eminem. But he also brought his longstanding affection for Motown with him to LA and has remained true to those roots from that day forward.

If LA was ever seeking its own version of Smokey Robinson, Hawthorne (born Andrew Mayer Cohen) wouldn’t be a bad choice. His sound may even be worthy of a comparison to Shuggie Otis, the “Strawberry Letter 23” hitmaker from LA who achieved commercial success during the mid-70’s. Yet, as he demonstrated for a packed crowd in Santa Monica, Hawthorne is as much the sum of his influences as he is his own entity.

Everything about Hawthorne’s onstage persona feels genuinely throwback. As his bandmates took their places, the “other mayor of Santa Monica” — as the city’s own Tony Vazquez coined him in between sets — followed behind, dressed as if he were playing the lead in a 1950’s film noir. He sat down next to his guitar at what looked like a makeshift bar and poured himself a drink, calmly sipping it before stepping to the mic and delivering more than an hour-long set that eclectically maneuvered between funk, soul, rock and reggae. He even dished out covers of Aerosmith (“Walk This Way”) and Brenton Wood (“Gimme Little Sign”) at one point during the show, electrifying an already enthusiastic bunch of spectators standing on the pier while plenty of others watched down below from the sand.

Hawthorne, after all, is a showman in every sense of the word. In this day and age in which it doesn’t take more than a laptop computer with prerecorded material and a couple visualizers to entertain an audience, he remains content doing things the old-fashioned way — through honest songwriting and soulful melodies. For someone with six studio albums (including his latest Man About Town from earlier this year) already tucked away in their pocket, that’s still something worth celebrating on a chilly summer night in Southern California.

Setlist:
Breakfast in Bed
Back Seat Lover
The Valley
Fancy Clothes
Allie Jones
Designer Drug
No Strings
The Only One
Crime
Scrabble
Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin
Medley
Get You Back
I Wish It Would Rain
Lingerie & Candlewax
Do It (Tuxedo song)
Walk This Way (Aerosmith cover)
The Walk/Gimme a Little Sign (Brenton Wood cover)
Love Like That

Encore:
Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)

tUnE-yArDs put an end to summer, close out 2015 Twilight Concert Series at the Santa Monica Pier

tUnE-yArDsBy Josh Herwitt //

tUnE-yArDs with Avid Dancer //
Santa Monica Pier – Santa Monica, CA
September 10th, 2015 //

Summer is officially over. Well, except for the fact that the weather in Southern California has been hovering in the high 90’s over the past two weeks.

So, what better way to escape the heat than to watch tUnE-yArDs play the last free concert of the summer at the beach?

With kids back in school and the tourist season dying down in Los Angeles, there weren’t quite as many bodies on the Santa Monica Pier or down on the sand last Thursday night as there had been in previous weeks.

tUnE-yArDs

But tUnE-yArDs, the musical project of New England native Merrill Garbus (drums, vocals, keyboards, ukulele), did their best to keep the small, but excited crowd entertained as the sun went down and the temperature cooled off. Playing one of the final shows with their current band lineup that features Dani Markham (percussion, vocals), Moira Smiley (vocals) and Haley Dekle (vocals), Garbus and Nate Brenner (bass, synths, vocals) ran through songs from their entire catalog, including their third and most recent full-length album Nikki Nack.

Opening the show was Avid Dancer, the indie-rock project of Jacob Dillan Summers, who grew up listening strictly to Christian music in a highly religious family before joining the United States Marine Corps and later moving to LA to play drums in a number of local bands. Now, with a guitar in hand, he’s leading his own band with his own stories to tell.

While the KCRW-sponsored performance marked the end of the 2015 Twilight Concert Series, signaling an end to summer, it also served as a reminder of how fun the past 10 weeks at the Santa Monica Pier have been for LA music fans.

Resident weirdo Ariel Pink preps for his upcoming fall tour with a free hometown show by the beach

Ariel PinkBy Josh Herwitt //

Ariel Pink with The Mynabirds //
Santa Monica Pier – Santa Monica, CA
August 20th, 2015 //

Los Angeles native Ariel Pink (born Ariel Marcus Rosenberg) is well known for his strange ways, whether it’s the lo-fi, psychedelic-pop music he creates or simply his bizarre onstage appearance. Ahead of his upcoming fall tour, the former Beverly Hills High School student performed at the Santa Monica Pier for free last Thursday and looked surprisingly “normal” for the hometown crowd, mirroring a youthful Kurt Cobain with his long and stringy blonde hair (it was dyed pink at one point, naturally).

The show, which was part of KCRW’s ongoing Twilight Concert Series this summer, saw Pink delve mostly into material from his 2014 critically acclaimed album pom pom, including the first nine songs of his set. And despite having his backing band — more formally known as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — with him, the 37-year-old singer-songwriter only played two songs from that branch of his expansive catalog before returning to more of his “solo” work. While it had been almost a month since Pink’s last gig, he’ll be back in LA fairly soon for two nights (Oct. 5th-6th) at The Teragram Ballroom before heading north to SF for back-to-back shows a week later at Bimbo’s 365 Club, where we caught him in February.

Kicking off the night were The Mynabirds, the Omaha band fronted by pianist Laura Burhenn (formerly of Washington D.C. indie outfit Georgie James) that released its third album Lovers Know just a couple weeks prior.

Setlist:
Four Shadows
White Freckles
Jell-o
Lipstick
One Summer Night
Put Your Number in My Phone
Goth Bomb
Dinosaur Carebears
Not Enough Violence
Fright Night (Nevermore) (Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti song)
Dayzed Inn Daydreams
Bright Lit Blue Skies (Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti song)
Picture Me Gone
Netherlands

Real Estate bring chilled-out vibes to Santa Monica

Real EstateBy Josh Herwitt //

Real Estate with Hippo Campus //
Santa Monica Pier – Santa Monica, CA
July 16th, 2015 //

Brooklyn-by-way-of-New Jersey indie rockers Real Estate saw their third and latest studio album Atlas climb all the way to No. 34 on the Billboard Top 200 chart last year, serving as a strong follow-up to 2011’s Days. After touring along the West Coast this past May with their fellow Brooklynites in folk-rock trio Woods, the five-piece from Ridgewood, N.J. — Martin Courtney IV (vocals, guitar), Alex Bleeker (bass, vocals), Matt Mondanile (guitar), Jackson Pollis (drums) and Matt Kallman (keyboards) — returned to California last Thursday and won over a properly stoned crowd at the Santa Monica Pier. Already drawing parallels to Vampire Weekend with their 2014 single “Little Grace”, Minnesota indie-pop quartet Hippo Campus opened the free show sponsored by KCRW, setting the mood before Real Estate’s chilled-out vibes afforded the perfect soundtrack on a tepid, summer night at the beach.

Setlist:
Atlantic City
Beach Comber
Had to Hear
Past Lives
Talking Backwards
How Might I Live
Crime
Kinder Blumen
Out of Tune
The Bend
Horizon
Green Aisles
All the Same
It’s Real
April’s Song
Fake Blues

LA gets a taste of Down Under thanks to Jagwar Ma, Flume

Jagwar Ma & Flume


Australia’s Jagwar Ma (left) and Flume (right) played to big crowds in LA last week.

By Josh Herwitt //

Over the past five years, Australia has become a hotbed for electronically-tinged music, and Los Angeles got to experience that first hand last week from two of the country’s biggest up-and-coming acts in 2014.

Headlining the Twilight Concert Series‘ fifth annual “Australia Rocks the Pier” show, Sydney psych-dance trio Jagwar Ma returned to Southern California for the first time since packing the Gobi Tent on Coachella‘s opening day back in April. And with a rather youthful crowd flocking to the Santa Monica Pier on Thursday night, Gabriel Winterfield (vocals, guitar), Jono Ma (guitar, beats, synths, production) and Jack Freeman (bass, vocals) ran through a large chunk of their 2013 debut Howlin’. Having played Lollapalooza in Chicago and Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal the weekend before, the band has maintained one of the most rigorous touring schedules this summer.

Yet, you wouldn’t have known it from the way Winterfield and Freeman jumped around on stage while Ma manned the decks, pumping life into each song through a number of synths and drum machines. What makes Jagwar Ma such an intriguing act right now is the way it can stretch out its songs and make the most of its relatively limited catalog — much like we reported after the band’s set at Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival on Saturday.

But what was just as impressive to see was Jagwar Ma’s ability to maintain an element of surprise even with Howlin’ being almost a year old now, as it doled out covers of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and Nirvana’s “All Apologies” after winning over the audience earlier in the night with fan favorites like “Uncertainty” and “Man I Need.” For those who hadn’t heard anything from the Aussie outfit until arriving at the beach that night, they couldn’t have asked for a much better introduction to a band that has sold out shows all the across the globe at this point.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to say that there’s an artist who has created more buzz for himself in the last year than 22-year-old Australian prodigy Harley Streten — or as his fans better know him, Flume. Streten, who started making music at the age of 13 after discovering a production software disc in a box of cereal, released his self-titled debut in late 2012 and a year later, found himself winning awards for “Best Male Artist” and” Best Independent Album” in his home country.

Since then, Streten’s newborn success has only continued to spread across the Pacific Ocean and into the states, where the shift toward electronic music is more apparent than ever these days. By the time he played Coachella this year, he had already proven to be too popular to be performing in a tent, evidenced by the thousands of festivalgoers who were spilling outside of the Gobi’s canopy for his 50-minute set.

Opening the first of three sold-out shows at Club Nokia on Friday night, Streten proved to not be in any rush, strolling out on stage almost 30 minutes after his expected 11 p.m. start time. If he was told that showing up late was the “cool thing to do” when you play in LA, it’s not — not when you have fans that waited in line as early as 4 p.m. for a chance to stand up front.

Maybe that didn’t matter to Streten, though. After all, he seems to be everywhere of late, squeezing in sets last weekend at Splash House in Palm Springs on Saturday and Outside Lands in SF on Sunday (read our report, which included some hilarious tree dancing) between his three headlining gigs Friday, Saturday and Monday in LA.

At Club Nokia, he was absolutely adored by the 18-22 demographic that dominated the dance floor. He broke out the hits early, getting the crowd moving to his infectious single “Holdin’ On” before dropping some hip-hop on the crowd compliments of “On Top,” which features New York rapper T.Shirt.

However, for as catchy and well-produced as Streten’s tracks are, there’s still something about paying to watch a so-called “musician” stand behind a laptop — without anyone knowing what he’s truly doing — that feels somewhat disingenuous. That’s not to say that technology has no place in today’s music scene, but in an industry that has become increasingly dependent upon live performance to survive economically, very little about Flume’s show felt “live.”

If there was one element of the 75-minute show that stood above everything else, it was undoubtedly the visual component, which featured original video clips synced to each track. As cool as that was, it wasn’t anything worth spending $90-100 on, which is what tickets were being resold for on StubHub as well as Craigslist (retail ticket prices were $20-40, plus service fees).

With Jagwar Ma and Flume leading the way, there’s certainly plenty of promise for the future of music in the land Down Under. Whether both acts can continue living up to the hype that they’ve garnered from their debut albums, well, that remains to be seen.