Monterey is a beautiful place. The coastal city’s County Fairgrounds are ample enough to serve as an ideal platform for the second annual installment of the city’s new trademark rock festival: First City Music Festival.
This year’s lineup was riddled with acts both local and buzzy, from Midi Matilda, Cool Ghouls and Geographer to Beck and our favorites, Phantogram. The music is reason enough to attend, with a roster capitalizing on acts also in the state for the hot (literally and pop culturally) FYF Fest in Los Angeles, and on the rich pool of artists from the Bay Area to supplement the bill.
But what’s probably the most refreshing thing about this festival (besides the music) is its focus on the details of the entire experience of the concert-goer. They built a pretty impressive marketplace of local vendors and artists, culminating in a stretch of tables where you could exchange or buy records. In addition, First City brings in an entire carnival, complete with a Ferris Wheel, games, haunted houses, and a swing carousel straight from Neverland Ranch (for real).
But the music was even more impressive.
Miniature Tigers channeled 80s synths and Weezer on the Cypress stage, rocking rolled up denim and coifed hair playing hits like “The Wolf” to open the fest.
— Miniature Tigers (@MiniatureTigers) August 23, 2014
How to Dress Well played afterwards on the same stage. The quirky Tom Krell, who creates the synthy neo-soul sounds behind the emotive What is This Heart? was a bit drowned out by the bass, but the set was as evocative as his album.
On a lighter note, he pandered to the Beck-loving crowd, name-dropping the headliner dozens of times for seemingly no reason. It looks like it was on purpose though:
Tokyo Police Club, a BFD 2014 artist, highlighted the main Redwood stage, situated in the fairground’s beautiful arena. The group announced it was their last show on tour, and ended with “Your English is Good”, a upbeat favorite inciting the audience to dance along with them.
Bethany Cosentino took to the same big stage in a silk green dress, with a red cup in a holder attached to her microphone. It has been a while since The Only Place dropped, but the duo of Cosentino and Bobb Bruno still know how to channel California pop for summer days.
Tanlines, a New York act who would be playing FYF Fest the next day, stopped for an intimate set at First City’s Cypress stage. It was short, but they hit tracks from their 2012 Mixed Emotions, and played a few new cuts as well. Guitarist Eric Emm’s vocals have greatly improved on the road, especially on their trademark tracks like “Brothers” and “All of Me”.
The pair making up Phantogram are a spectacle on their own. If you caught them at BFD, you are well aware that Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter can really get a crowd moving. Barthel’s sweet vocals and Carter’s fierce accompaniment prove them a formidable duo for the future of electronic pop.
Beck, the first night’s headliner, played a wide-reaching 90-minute set, touching on all the expansive genres he has experimented with in the nearly 30 years he has been performing. He rapped on the second opening song, “Loser”, and not long after he picked up a harmonica, accompanied by a banjo. It was a performance that reminded the audience of the vastness of his experience and sonic influence—he’s iconic, and rightfully so.
He’s one for choreography, and there were moments that felt a little too rehearsed, but it was easy to be swept up in his eminent appeal. He’s a rock idol and a genre chameleon, and he made it clear he can still deliver a memorable performance, spine injury be damned.
Day two was just as easygoing as the previous. Midi Matilda, the local bay area pop outfit of Skyler Kilborn and Logan Grime, kicked off the day with a lively run at Cypress stage featuring their signature dance number, and another local group, Cool Ghouls, took to the Manzanita Stage to rock a psych-laden rock set.
The Men, a punk band from New York, catered a bit to the folk-loving Monterey crowd, sticking to less hardcore takes on their music. Their fans seemed to love it just the same (myself included). San Fermin, a baroque pop group from Brooklyn, utilized a horn section with dueling male-female vocalists, but fell a little bit short of delivering manicured compositionally precise movements as their recordings offer. It certainly provided a different depth to the festival’s billing as a whole, as not many pop bands would embrace a classical element to their sound.
In nearly conflicting time slots were Future Islands and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Future Islands is a group hard to define. “Synth-pop” doesn’t quite do them justice, as their tone is dark and intricate, and that sort of tag connotes an inherent breeziness. Nonetheless, the group is fronted by the happy-footed Samuel T. Herring, an energetic Southern gentleman who also happens to be a deeply emotive baritone. It was the act I most looked forward to, and they did not disappoint—Herring is highly charismatic, and you get the feeling that the affections he’s portraying onstage are as real as if he’s experiencing them for the first time.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. as I’ve said before are fun and highly entertaining. The Detroit pop group explored some darker sounds on their normally ebullient cuts, but played to an audience of their biggest fans. Lead singer Josh Epstein, donning a “JR.” cap jumped into the crowd, dancing along to their contagious, dance-inducing numbers, before a sweet cover of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”.
In all, the festival is one for everybody. First City manages to capitalize on excellent, varied bookings while retaining a community-conscious feel. You can bring the family. You can see blues, or hard rock, or even country-folk within minutes of each other, and not be trampled in the process. You’re going to have a blast. It’s the feel that many festivals strive to deliver, and it’s refreshing to see one succeed.