Huntington State Beach, Huntington Beach, CA
Once upon a time, going to a music festival was an investment. It meant saving up and trekking out to places like Coachella or Lollapalooza, or waiting for your favorite radio station to assembly a seasonal all-day festival show packed with your favorite artists.
It seems hard to believe now, with the proliferation of music festivals both locally and across the country over the past number of years, but once upon a time, music festivals were more of a niche segment, designed mostly for music fans. But this recent explosion in concert events has given the chance for fans of just about any type of music to attend an event and take in a full day or two of their favorite artists—even if said artists have moved on from mainstream popularity.
So it came that one such example—the Back to the Beach Festival in Huntington State Beach—came to pass this past weekend. The second annual iteration of this event, which we covered last year, took place Saturday and Sunday, bringing a healthy dose of ska and punk rock to the Southern California scene credited with birthing and popularizing the music genres. The festival was a tale of two days: an action packed, heavily stacked, significantly crowded Saturday that carried plenty of energy and nostalgia but ended on a sour note with a cataclysmic parking exit issue; and a much more chill, casual, and relaxing Sunday (crowd-wise) that slowly wound up toward an adrenaline finish. In between, nostalgia and good times pervaded the air, as ska and punk fans spent the days enjoying the music of their youth and sharing it with their own families and kids.
Both days started out pretty cloudy and dreary, as May Gray threatened to arrive early on this final weekend of April. But by mid-afternoon, the sun broke through, making for a lovely back half of the day. The site of the festival was, once again, Huntington State Beach (also home to Corgi Beach Day—just further up PCH). The festival grounds were laid out right on the sand, with the ocean on one side, the stage on the other, and booths and vendors and open space making up the middle.
There were plenty of amenities set up to give this a “family day at the beach” vibe. Oversized beach chairs, lawn games, and plenty of photo ops helped guests spend time between sets. For the younger tykes, there was also a “Kids Zone” with “live mermaid” meet-and-greet and a child-friendly DJ spinning beats in the early afternoon. The children-centric activities ended mid-afternoon, though, and it seems like there could be opportunity to grow this area to further enhance the family scene at the festival.
Unlike the Sabroso Music, Taco, and Beer Festival that occurred earlier in the month (and was also put on by Synergy Global Entertainment), Back to the Beach is a pretty straightforward rock festival, with accessory food and merch brought along as a complement, not as a feature. Across the southeast half of the grounds, there were several rows of merchandise tents selling accessories and clothing, and a few others advertising services targeted at the expected clientele. Along the long ends of the festival grounds, there were also a couple dozen or so gourmet food vendors, serving up tacos, burgers, sausages, chicken tenders, and gourmet bowls. Unsurprisingly for a Southern California event, both carnivorous and vegan/vegetarian options were available.
In addition, beer and cocktails were readily available along long rows of additional tents. There was also a beer garden of sorts, though it was sponsored by Kona Brewing Company and thus was only serving Kona beer. Given the hotbed of SoCal breweries all around—including plenty in Orange County—it seemed like a miss to limit the beer selection. Inviting some of the local OC booze purveyors, like Bruery, Barley Forge, Noble Aleworks, or Bottle Logic, or even bigger named San Diego craft mainstays like Stone, Ballast Point, Karl Strauss, or Pizza Port would have provided some welcome diversity.
So would some additional planks from the main walkways to the actual food and beer stands. Seemingly placed for accessibility circulation for the disabled, they ran through the length of the grounds, but somewhat mysteriously, they often stopped short of the actual stalls. Although the demographic for wheelchair-bound rock concert goer is admittedly low, it would have been nice to see greater accommodations—if only because it would also helped the non-sandal clad guest (and there were plenty, given that this was still a rock show featuring moshing and high activity) get through the beach without accumulating mounds of sand in their shoes!
One of our critiques last year was the relative lack of shade at the event, given the OC sunshine that is so prevalent. The partly cloudy weather this year made it less of an issue, and we did see a slight improvement in the amount of shade structures erected, but ultimately, they still felt a little lacking—especially since most of them were laid out in a manner that didn’t truly provide shade. Fabric structures with arcs cut out or supported high up often left plenty of area for sunlight to filter through anyway, making them more decorative than functional. Admittedly, they added nice pops of color to the sandscape, though.
Finally, the northwest sector of the grounds one against housed the VIP area, with its own, smaller set of food vendors and restrooms. In addition, an elevated series of cabanas was available for higher tier VIP renters, overlooking the sole stage. One of the nice adjustments made this year was a reduction of the VIP floor area relative to general admission. Rather than occupy half of the stage frontage, the VIP’s had closer to 35% to 40%, allowing the plebeians more space to pack in for their favorite bands.
What really made the festival, though were the attendees. Southern California was the breeding ground of third wave ska in the 1990s and a hotbed of punk rock around the same time period as well, and plenty of people grew up on this music during their formative years. Those people formed the bulk of the guests at Back to the Beach Festival. Armed with higher purchasing power than their teenage years, these rock fans descended on Huntington State Beach in droves, bringing with them friends, loved ones, and even kids to appreciate the music of their own youth.
It was the family aspect that proved most enjoyable throughout the weekend. The festival certainly angled for an all-ages vibe, but it was heartening to see kids on their parents shoulders or walking around enjoying this “old music” that still thrilled a generation of fans. Music is universal, and good music has staying power. The family dynamic played this out very clearly, and it was a great sight to observe, consistently and throughout the weekend.
Many people also came dressed up in one form or another, donning or styling wardrobe in tribute to some of the performers of the weekend. Saturday night even saw a guest dressed up like the nurse from the album cover of Blink-182’s Enema of the State be invited to the stage because the band was so thrilled by it. There were also Aquabat fans, fans in leis and other ocean-themed head and neckwear, and just people showing off their ska/punk style, and this passion on open display added to the energy of the weekend.
Also contributing to the energy—especially on Saturday—were the large crowds that were clearly attracted to Saturday’s heavy-hitting line-up. Though space was bountiful at the start of the festival, as the afternoon wore on, elbow room quickly became a premium. That didn’t hurt the ambiance, which remained casual, good-natured, and enjoyable. But it’s a testament to the festival’s and the bands’ still-beating popularity that so many thousands of fans showed up.
Of course the music is what people came for, and a great line-up people got—especially on Saturday, which started out with a bang by Seattle-based The Drowns. Through an energetic, half hour set, these self-described “pale, chubby guys” from the Pacific Northwest got the crowd pumped and kept them active and engaged.
Second on Saturday’s docket was venerable ska/reggae/2-tone band from Birmingham, The English Beat, who brought peaceful vibes and universal love to the beach grounds. With Dave Wakeling on guitar/vocals and King Schascha stepping in on vocals in place of the recently passed and longtime bandleader, Ranking Roger, The English Beat settled the buzzing crowd down just a notch but filled the air with positivity. At one point, King Schascha stopped to remark on the unifying power of music, and how people of all ages, races, creeds, backgrounds, and political leanings were here, together, to have a good time and enjoy a wonderful day on the beach with some melodic flavor.
If The English Beat kept things cool and calm, Orange County’s own Save Ferris picked up the jams again. Here for the second year in a row, this beloved ska band elicited cheers from the moment the members walked onto stage until lead singer, Monique Powell’s last notes. With Fishbone keyboardist, Christopher Dowd, accompanying, Save Ferris ran through a spree of their hits, including “I Know” from 10 Things I Hate About You and “Goodbye.” Plus, of course, their famous cover of “Come On, Eileen.” Monique also treated her fans to three different outfits, thanks to two on-stage wardrobe changes primarily consisting of removing her current dress to reveal her outfit beneath.
Although the first three acts had been great, it was around 3:00 when the Aquabats took the stage that things really started brightening up—literally! As frontman, Christian “MC Bat Commander” Jacobs, noted, before the Aquabats came on, it was gray and dreary, but look at when the sun came out!
That wasn’t the only thing out during this ska and new wave band’s performance. There were plenty of giant, inflatable pool toys tossed out into the crowd, starting with a frenzy of sharks to go along with the set openinger, “Shark Fighter!” Naturally, this led to crowd surfers literally climbing onto the sharks and riding the dinghies across the pit. “Pizza Day!” brought along pizza-shaped floaties, with different fans climbing on that (or at least trying to), and SuperRad entertained the masses. True to their whimsical and cartoonish nature, the Aquabats also entertained a blow-up clown and T-Rex prancing around the stage. And even though they were forced to cut two songs to make up schedule, the Aquabats kept the fun going. By the time they closed things out with “Pool Party!" the crowd was jumping, rollicking, and having the time of their lives.
Most of the bands on Saturday were locally grown, but New Jersey’s Streetlight Manifesto more than fit into the Back to the Beach bill with their brand of East Coast ska punk. They also brought a bit of foreshadowing to the headliners of the evening with their heavier and more aggressive brand of ska. With songs like “The Three of Us” and “Watch It Crash,” Tomas Kalnoky and his gang kept the residual energy from the preceding Aquabats going with another great set. Their spirit and stage presence kept everyone riding high on what was turning into an increasingly better and better afternoon, although an early finish with ten minutes left on their set time might have left the Aquabats a tad sour about having to cut two of their songs prior.
Los Alamitos’ own Reel Big Fish continued the second half of Saturday’s freight train line-up. Last year, RBG couldn’t make the line-up due to contractual radius clause from a different appearance, so they ended up unofficially showing up as part of Goldfinger’s set. This year, however, Reel Big Fish was free to openly be Reely Big Fishy.
Lead singer, Aaron Barrett, Johnny Christmas, Matt “Saxl Rose” Appleton, Derek Gibbs, and the rest of the band kept the throwback aura burning brightly. They played a series of their favorites, from “Your Guts” to “Everything Sucks” To “Beer” to “Sell Out” and more. To some’s surprise, “I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend Too” did not feature Save Ferris’ Monique Powell (who provided the female vocals on the album), who actually came out later for one of Goldfinger’s songs.
They also brought out a friend, Taylor Morden, to play trumpet with them on a song. Taylor is the director of a new documentary on ska during the 1990s entitled Pick It Up. If anything epitomizes the impact that 90’s ska still has, it’s Back to the Beach. And the documentary delves into how third wave ska came of age in the sunny communities of Southern California.
Back to the gig… Reel Big Fish’s finisher? Of course, the band’s famous cover of A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” featuring Barrett culminating the song with some fancy behind-the-head guitar playing.
Speaking of Goldfinger, they were next up, serving as the penultimate band on the line-up. John Feldmann (co-producer of the festival along with blink-182 drummer, Travis Barker) and his band rocked through a set that literally included more covers than original songs—plus enough guest appearances that one might have thought this was a Coachella set. Dave Wakeling joined Goldfinger for a rendition of The English Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom,” while 311’s Nick Hexum joined on guitar for “Amber.” Sublime’s Rome Ramirez was the special guest for Goldinger’s cover of “Date Rape,” and they even did a version of Blur’s “Song 2.” To finish things off, Feldy and co. ended with their version of Nena’s “99 Red Balloons,” sung in English as opposed to German.
As the sun settled behind the Pacific Ocean horizon, it was finally time for the main attraction of the night: blink-182. The band had been promising all week to play their 1999 breakthrough, Enema of the State, front to back, and as they launched into the album’s opener, “Dumpweed,” the audience went crazy for this special, 20-year anniversary special.
It was admittedly a little bit odd to see this performed by an outfit different from the band’s most well-known trio, with Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba taking Tom DeLonge’s spot to play with founder Mark Hoppus and synonymous drummer, Travis Barker. But once the music got going, the nostalgia for all the 90s kids in the audience flooded through any notions of oddity. Some of these songs had not been played live in nearly 20 years. Album closer “Anthem,” for example, literally had not been played since 1999, and never with Matt Skiba. With Hoppus bouncing up and down all around the stage and Skiba doing a respectable job of filling in DeLonge’s vocals, blink’s front-to-back and pyro-accented set gave fans the fitting capper to the amazing day they had experienced.
After a brief break for encore, the trio came back with a few of their hits, like “Feeling This,” “Bored to Death,” “The Rock Show,” and “Damnit.” It had been a long day of awesome music, and—all the better for the target age group—people were done and headed toward the exits comfortably before the 9PM hard curfew.
In contrast to Saturday, Sunday appropriately felt more like a rest day. For one, the beach didn’t really start filling in until much later in the afternoon. Perhaps people were acoustically hung over from the previous day’s rock epic, or perhaps most folks were in lazy Sunday mode, or maybe the line-up was just a little bit imbalanced in favor of Saturday. In any case, the crowds were significantly down on Back to the Beach Day 2.
Lowlives, Teenage Wrist, and Story of the Year kicked things off on Sunday. Whether it was because of the reduced crowds in comparison (and even those who were present preferred to lounge out on the sand, farther from the stage) or their own style of stage presence, they couldn’t quite match the zeal of Saturday’s performers, though they were fine enough—especially for a series of Sunday afternoon sets.
Less Than Jake, however, ended up being one of the standout’s of the day, bringing the crowd alive with their ska punk performance that was laden with favorites as well. Although day 2 had a more hard rock oriented line-up, and the band clearly would have fit in better with Saturday’s crowd, it was clear that those at Back to the Beach’s second day still had an appetite for ska. Less Than Jake’s energy and enthusiasm pumped everyone up, ratcheting the momentum as the day switched to its back half.
The Wonder Years and Anthony Green kept things going in the fifth and sixth slots of the day, though it certainly felt like the Sunday inertia contributed to the atmosphere being not quite as lively as the previous day. Dan Campbell’s band included their pop punk hits like “Sister Cities” and “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then,” among others, before finishing with “Came Out Swinging.”
Second to last on Sunday, NorCal pop punkers, The Story So Far, proved to be a fitting lead-up to the night’s headliners, The Used, with a great, 13-song set that had crowd surfers and moshers galore. Hits like “Heavy Gloom” and “Out of It” were featured on the setlist. One of the younger bands on the bill, they nonetheless put on a great show as the festival approached its evening hours.
That left The Used to button up Back to the Beach. And they did it with a bang! From the moment they kicked things off with “Take It Away” to their closing encore number, “A Box Full of Sharp Objects,” Bert McCracken screamed his way through a bit of a nostalgia set for the early 2000s crowd.
The band brought on percussionists Street Drum Corps for a third of their songs, including “The Bird and the Worm” and “Blood on My Hands.” John Feldmann did a guest spot on “All That I’ve Got,” continuing his cover-themed weekend. The Used didn’t shy away from other bands’ songs either, covering Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Linkin Park’s “Shadow of the Day.” The force and power of their performance provided the other major highlight of the day, drawing Back to the Beach to a triumphant close.
Back to the Beach proved that nostalgia for 90s and 2000’s rock is very alive and well. Perhaps too much so, in fact. Unfortunately, the lone blemish of the festival was a big one. Saturday night featured a massive traffic jam of brain numbingly frustrating proportions thanks to a combination of the exceedingly high volume of guests leaving the venue and a complete lack of traffic control.
Rather than hire traffic cops to station the parking lot exits and direct traffic efficiently, or even coordinate with the city of Huntington Beach to block off a lane of PCH traffic and allow for continuous exiting flow out of the parking lot, the event left vehicular egress to the regular programming of the beach intersection traffic lights, which were clearly not set to accommodate the flood of thousands of cars leaving the beach at the same time.
The result was a long line of cars back up across multiple parking lots along Huntington State Beach, for well over an hour, as merge points and needless waits for red lights crippled the route out. For how good Saturday was, this ending left a very sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths.
Fortunately, Sunday ended up being better, likely because there were a lot less people in comparison. The traffic congestion wasn’t a major problem last year, but by all witness, Back to the Beach also had a lot less attendees in 2018. If there’s one huge criticism amidst what is otherwise plenty of love and appreciation for Back to the Beach, it’s that the event producers will need to reconcile the traffic situation when the festival inevitably comes back next year.
And come back it should! Despite the bitter troubles at the end of Saturday night, Back to the Beach demonstrated that there is an excellent demand for ska and punk in California—where the genre really came of age twenty plus years ago. This is a tribute to a festival knowing its audience. Events like Sabroso and Back to the Beach work very well in Southern California because they feature bands that grew up and made it big out here—bands who still have ardent fans who crave the chance to relive a bit of their childhood and enjoy this great music with their next generation of families. For something like third wave ska, made famous by bands like Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, and the Aquabats, there are still plenty of fans who love seeing these artists live. It’s something covered in Pick It Up.
This trend of targeted festivals—and also of beachside festivals—doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Like marathons, comic con’s, and food trucks, these specialized music festivals have become part of the Southern California landscape. And as a huge lover of live music and concerts, I am glad to see them sticking around!
Saturday photos by myself; Sunday photos by Dan Angona.
The English Beat
Reel Big Fish
Story of the Year
Less than Jake
The Wonder Years
The Story So Far
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.