Pasadena. It’s not all roses, and bowls, and bands on parade. Sometimes, they put bands on stages. Once a year, Pasadena throws down, casting off its good-mannered reputation and well-bred background and replacing those marching bands with rock bands for the bloated festival day known as Make Music Pasadena.
Over 100 concerts on a sprawling array of concert stages across the city’s downtown — all for free. In a single day, Make Music Pasadena brings together the best of indie music’s up-and-comers, a few surprising headliners, and an eclectic assortment of niche-genres performers. The sound was amazing, the bands were on like clockwork, and the food trucks were plentiful. My one regret of the day was that I could not see all the bands I wanted to due to overlapping set times. Well, that and my glaring lack of sunscreen. So two — two regrets.
My first show of the day was Freedom Fry, and although I’m not sure I can stomach the name (she’s French, he’s American…get it?), I was delightfully surprised by the duo’s sound.
Just noon and already hotter in Pasadena than Rob Ford’s crack pipe at a Maple Leafs playoff party, the crowd at the Playhouse District stage was a bit sparse. That didn’t stop Freedom Fry from putting on a memorable show, though.
The twosome of Marie Seyrat and Bruce Driscoll delivered the perfect confection of California-rock-meets-French pop, and Seyrat’s light French influences are what set them apart. In a teal polo that matched the color of his Gibson, Driscoll strummed coastal riffs alongside Seyrat’s airy vocals, catapulting this duo to the top of my summer playlist. I might just have to go back for seconds and catch them at The Bootleg tonight.
Moving on from the food puns, Superhumanoids next took the stage. The Los Angeles-based trio is primed to release their new album, Exhibitionists, on June 11th, and this was my first time catching the band in concert. I expected a show fraught with fervor and emotion, and perhaps unjustly my expectations were high.
The trio may have lacked a certain degree of showmanship Saturday, but their explosive opening knocked me nearly off balance, and their sound alone made for one of the most emotionally enveloping performances of the day. The dream/synth-pop act’s uncanny ability to create music that’s both danceable and enigmatically alluring was apparent, and their sound simultaneously mirrors both the acute froth and underbelly of a city like Los Angeles.
Superhumanoids’ “Geri” best portrayed the band’s blend of ‘80s synth and today’s pop, and guitarist and co-vocalist Cameron Parkins’ delivery haunted with warm, yet robotic tones. Think Morrissey with more staccato. With some fancy footwork and nice rhythm, Parkins served up much of the band’s personality. Overall, their music — and particularly Sarah Chernoff’s voice — so captured me that I was yearning for even more from group.
First off, the day’s award for most stylish band goes to Hunter Hunted. Somehow Dan Chang can rock a sleeveless Canadian Tuxedo like it’s no big thing. So, yeah…that. No, but really, Hunter Hunted was the biggest surprise of the day for me.
Formed in just January of this year (previously they were of Lady Danville), these guys are already show stoppers in the vein of Youngblood Hawke (we’ll get to them later). Dan Chang and Michael Garner play with an excitement and vigor that far surpasses what’s captured on their recordings.
A concert is only as exciting as the band’s members, and the duo brought enough energy to electrify the hoards of fans down Colorado Blvd. Their driving rhythms literally set my heart racing and also helped to propel their bright, poppy harmonies.
Things got even crazier, however, when the violins came out for the band’s take on “Where is My Mind?” A heavily-covered song to be sure, but Hunter Hunted did it proud. All deference to Pixies, but I was really a fan of this version as well. Not nearly as eerie or melodramatic as the original, Hunter Hunted’s updated take was enthralling, and their upcoming summer dates with The Mowgli’s should be a euphoric experience not to be missed.
Next I caught singer/songwriter Simone White serenading Make Music Pasadena attendees from the humble amphitheater stage of the Levitt Pavillion where she often let the silence speak for her as much as the actual notes of her music. The native Hawaiian has spent her career as a bit of a journeyman, living in New York, London, and now calling Los Angeles home.
Taking in her show from the grassy knoll of Memorial Park, White’s pensive set provided a needed respite and an excellent opportunity to bask in the healing qualities of her delicate, breathless delivery. White also performed flawlessly in Spanish and Italian — the latter a song she picked up from her last European tour.
We Are Scientists
Like the temperature of the tortuous San Gabriel Valley sun that torched my porcelain skin a fiery red Saturday, the energy level of the sets at the festival kept rising as the day went on. Clearly, I was not the only one getting scorched, though, as a tent had to be constructed over the drummer platform on the Playhouse District stage.
From Hunter Hunted to We Are Scientists, the duos and trios really ruled the day. Originally formed in Pomona but calling Brooklyn home since the early-2000s, We Are Scientists played to a virtually hometown crowd at Make Music Pasadena. I’ve been a fan of the trio for years but had yet to ever catch them live.
Known for their affable sets, Keith Murray and Chris Cain didn’t disappoint up front. They had a rapport and intensity playing together that wouldn’t abate. Even if you stripped away the guys’ banter, their charisma would be palpable. Perhaps that’s owed to over a decade-long career together. Their freewheeling play and ability to deftly key off each other is what made We Are Scientists’ set one of the day’s best.
The band performed new material as well as some old favorites. The silver fox of Brooklyn, Murray was joined on vocals by Matt Sharp of The Rentals for their finale — a “super-duper fast” rendition of “After Hours.” The song was a frenzied fit of exaltation and joy that made me want to say that I’ll stay.