Now in its fifth year, the Sunset Strip Musical Festival is a notable highlight of the Los Angeles calendar not just for its celebration of Hollywood’s glory days of rock & roll debauchery but for its co-opting of a couple of blocks of prime Sunset real estate. The Strip is closed to traffic as massive stages are erected in the street to complement the area’s cadre of legendary rock venues.
With bands performing at The Roxy, Key Club, and Whiskey A Go-Go — as well as on the three outdoor stages — throughout the day, there’s an intimidating amount of music to take in, especially as your lone brave LAmb correspondent for this year’s festival. I therefore have elected to focus my coverage on the two largest stages, located at the far east and west ends of the temporary grounds and home to the day’s biggest names. Even with that limitation in place, there remains a lot to cover, and I’m mentally going over my plan for the day as I meander down Laurel Canyon Boulevard toward Hollywood.
Having located both parking and press check-in — this being Hollywood, these things take longer than they perhaps should — I arrive at the west end of the festival ground just in time to catch fast-rising rock stars (and perennial LAmb favorites) Dead Sara.
But it turns out, I needn’t have rushed as the band still shows no sign of materializing onstage nearly 20 minutes after their posted set time. The crowd is growing restless when a large black truck rumbles down Sunset and pulls up in front of the stage. Immediately a mob of blue-shirted volunteers begin unloading additional barricades to hold the aforementioned crowd at bay. I don’t envy them in the slightest — those things are seriously heavy and the weather is every bit as brutal as the late Los Angeles summer would suggest.
3:15pm — Dead Sara
At last. 45 minutes after they were scheduled to start — and 15 minutes after they were scheduled to finish — Dead Sara finally gets their set underway, making up for lost time by tearing through “Sorry For It All,” “Testing My Patience,” and “Lemon Scent” with all the fury of a band somewhat screwed over by poor event planning. Frontwoman Emily Armstrong entreats the crowd, “If I decide to jump, don’t let me hit the fucking ground, all right?” before the band closes big with “Weatherman,” extending their radio hit with a spoken — yelled? — word interlude from Armstrong before closing with a cacophony of rock thunder. Armstrong mounts bassist Chris Null’s amp and strikes a Christ-like pose before clambering headlong into the crowd as promised. Girl gets around.
4:45pm — Black Label Society
Next up is Black Label Society. I last saw long-serving Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde and his band tear up a stage back in 2005, so I’m pretty jazzed for today’s set. Mr. Wylde certainly makes a grand entrance, sporting a giant Native American headdress in addition to his standard uniform of black jeans, denim jacket, and leather wrist guards. At first I think something is wrong with his mic — I’m standing right in front of the stage and his vocals are completely inaudible. It’s only after I leave the confines of the press pit that I realize that the mic is fine and that the wall of Marshalls onstage were quite simply drowning out all other sound where I was standing. Bands will often haul rows of empty amplifier cabinets onstage for visual effect but no other purpose. Wylde apparently doesn’t play that game. And I probably should have thought to bring earplugs.
BLS tear through a breakneck set that includes “Bleed For Me,” “Demise of Sanity,” “Fire It Up,” and all the fretboard shredding and howling pinch harmonics fans expect from the big Z. “Suicide Messiah” sees a highly enthusiastic roadie with a megaphone join the band onstage to contribute a crackling refrain to the song’s agreeably dopey chorus. A cover of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” — each year the festival celebrates an iconic act with a connection to the Strip, and The Doors are this year’s honorees — features the band’s guitarist, Ronnie Krieger, sporting some pretty serious red, white, and grey checkerboard pants and BLS bassist John DeServio taking over lead vocal duties from Wylde. The set is best summarized, however, by the image of Wylde holding his Flying V/SG hybrid aloft like the hammer of Thor at the conclusion of “Stillborn.”
At this point, I am faced with a conundrum. My already-precarious festival schedule has been blown to smithereens by the delay resulting from the aforementioned barricade kerfuffle, and it is now nigh-impossible to predict when the various acts will actually hit the stage. I therefore resolve to ping-pong between the two main stages, catching as many set openings — the period during which press are permitted to take photos of the performers — as possible.
This has at least resolved my previous dilemma over whether to see Bad Religion or De La Soul. Bad Religion has the (theoretically) earlier set time, so I should be able to catch the beginning of their set before heading down to the other end of the grounds to do the same with De La Soul. So here I am, watching West Hollywood mayor Jeffrey Prang introduce the band, flanked by a cadre of city councilfolk waving “Free Pussy Riot” signage. Which is admittedly pretty neat.
6:14pm — Bad Religion
The punk stalwarts in Bad Religion may be looking a little grey these days, but they still bring plenty of punk energy to the stage, along with a side dish of self-aware humor courtesy of frontman Greg Graffin. The band opens their set with “Los Angeles Is Burning,” and all is right in the world.
6:30pm — De La Soul
After several solid hours of overdriven guitars — with plenty more yet to come — the laid-back East Coast stylings of De La Soul is sounding increasingly like a refreshing change of pace. This proves to be the case despite the fact that only two of the hip-hop trio are performing, with the third member, Maseo, having spent much of 2012 on a hiatus of sorts. Remaining members Posdnuos and Trugoy nonetheless hold the crowd spellbound with their relaxed stage banter and a set list that spans the group’s quarter-century of existence.
7:52pm — The Offspring
I must confess to not being much of a fan of The Offspring, the long-lived OC punk band’s snot-to-grit ratio being a little high for my taste. That said, the band certainly brings the noise live, tearing through “All I Want,” “Come Out and Play,” and new single, “Days Go By,” off the album of the same name. I didn’t expect this to be the case, but I could happily stay to catch the rest of the band’s set were it not for the imminent arrival of DJ Steve Aoki at the far end of the grounds.
Or so I thought. As it turns out, I could have stuck around for more Offspring after all. Instead I, a cadre of other photographers, and an increasingly restless crowd wait for close to an hour for Aoki’s set to get underway. Around me there is much speculation as to the cause of the delay — and at one point a chant of “What the fuck” from some of the less patient audience members — yet still Aoki’s laptop and turntables sit silent in front of a blank LED display.
9:12pm — Steve Aoki
And yet the set winds up being well worth the wait. Aoki brings a manic energy to the stage and peppers his grimy beats with guest appearances including Lil Jon, will.i.am, and Travis Barker. He also fills the intervals when he isn’t twiddling the knobs on his Pioneers or screaming bloody murder into his mic by hurling cakes into the audience. That’s full-size birthday cakes lobbed square into the faces of screaming fans in the front row. They seem not to mind, but it sends photographers ducking for cover.
I — and most of the other members of the press in attendance — are unable to secure permission to shoot photos of headliner Marilyn Manson, but the silver lining is that no festival staff materialize to escort us away from Aoki, leaving us free to document the entirety of the glorious audio-visual mess that is his set. Confetti cannons fire repeatedly and the big finale is the unveiling of a 400 lb cake baked to celebrate the acquisition of the his millionth Facebook fan. This Aoki naturally takes a lying face-plant into before flinging further handfuls of pastry and frosting at his adoring fans.
10:24pm — Marilyn Manson
As I wander back toward the west end of the grounds whilst wiping vanilla frosting from my t-shirt, Marilyn Manson’s set is already underway, his unmistakeable rasp floating my way on a wave of industrial sludge. The trademark Nuremberg-Rally-by-way-of-Tim-Burton stage design is present and accounted for, as is a setlist of career highlights including “The Love Song,” “Rock Is Dead,” and covers of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” and The Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams.”
Manson also one-ups Black Label Society when he’s joined by not one but two members of The Doors, Robbie Krieger and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, to play “People Are Strange,” “Love Me Two Times,” and “Five To One.” He closes out his set with a pair of original numbers, “Antichrist Superstar” and — appropriately enough for a Hollywood festival — ”The Beautiful People.” SSMF concludes with Manson declaring, “It was wonderful to be in my hometown. And I will give you drugs and I will fuck you. But not in that order.” It’s tough to get much more Sunset Strip than that.