The inaugural This Ain’t No Picnic music festival played host, at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, to a wide array of Los Angeles’ favored indie darlings on Aug. 27 and 28. Inviting artists from Phoebe Bridgers to Le Tigre and everyone with a hint of punk in between, the festival demonstrated a commitment to showcasing how punk has squirmed out of its original boundaries, staying true to its core ethos even as it has trickled across genres.
For a festival that proclaims not to be a picnic, it managed to turn the Rose Bowl into as much of a cross between picnic and festival as possible. Families with strollers (children aged five and under entered free) showed up for some of the earlier, laidback acts — Arooj Aftab, Spellling — before festivalgoers ranging from age 20 to 50 rolled in for the harder hitting acts. Set across four stages, This Ain’t No Picnic offered its crowd any number of attractions, from DJ sets to hardcore punk. Nestled in the Arroyo Seco, the festival followed through on its promise for a weekend of relaxing, dancing and thrashing.
Saturday, August 27
Every Saturday act at the Fairway stage played under a disco ball belonging to LCD Soundsystem — the group that turned punk onto electronica and the pioneer of many of the sounds that most of the festival’s lineup would eventually use in their own work.
LCD Soundsystem generated the attitude that This Ain’t No Picnic’s organizers put front and center: a punk ethos heavy on rock touchstones, but equally committed to electronica and dance. In the early aughts, the band proved punk is less about brash instrumentals and more about sentiment; punk finds, like the emotions it tries to contain, new outlets.
James Murphy, the band’s frontman, isn’t so austere. “This is the off-off-Broadway part of the show,” he said, before launching into “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” The set, which was kicked off with “Yr City’s a Sucker,” quickly found its groove with “I Can Change” before moving on to some of the band’s biggest hits, and most important developments, from the past two decades.
“Daft Punk is Playing at My House” didn’t make the cut for the short festival set, but “Losing My Edge,” with snippets of Daft Punk’s “Robot Rock,” sent the crowd into a frenzy. Meanwhile, tracks such as “Someone Great” and “Home” kept the set grounded in LCD Soundsystem’s earnest side, all before Murphy closed out the show with the beat drop that needs no introduction, and “All My Friends.”
It’s hard to think of another act, on either day of the festival, whose music is as capable of carving out its own visual niche as Magdalena Bay. The band tames electronic maximalism with a club foundation and snippets of distraction — auditory diversions that could have only come from a group made up of two ’90s babies. Listen to “You Lose!,” from the band’s latest album Mercurial World. Doesn’t it sound, lyrics aside, like sitting in a friend’s basement, playing a Nintendo 64 and losing?
The duo — the super-sunny Mica Tenenbaum, with Matthew Lewin on keys, guitar and bass — has long been known for their multimedia approach. They first found traction with one-minute music videos, and have recently taken an absurdist approach to TikTok. At This Ain’t No Picnic, Magdalena Bay swooped through a setlist composed largely of tracks off Mercurial World in front of low-budget visuals: psychedelic, grainy, absurd camcorder videos of, for example, Lewin shooting hoops. It’s Y2K at its finest.
With the help of a drummer, the duo turned the Greens stage into a haven for the chronically online. One of the highlights of Magdalena Bay’s set, “The Beginning” (played near the end), has a backing of cheers in the studio version. On Saturday, the cheers were live.
The early acts at This Ain’t No Picnic had the toughest task: How do you excite a crowd that’s sitting in the shade, sheltering from the mid-day Los Angeles sun? Genesis Owusu, the 24-year-old Australian singer songwriter, had an answer. He started off his set with “The Other Black Dog,” the second track off his debut album Smiling With No Teeth — a high-energy crowd pumper that turned heads within earshot.
Owusu, whose debut was called “musical magpie-ism (that) is more Prince than pastiche” by the Arts Desk, took the Fairway stage in a red suit — severe shoulders, cropped jacket — that was, if nothing else, a nod to the late great’s command of pop. Backed by four dancers who constantly bounced around the stage, Owusu worked his way through a set that mixed hits off Smiling With No Teeth with some of his early singles.
The set flexed a discography that, while limited, demonstrated the artist’s ease in transitioning between genres (hip hop, dance, club, disco), all underscored by a punk sensibility — the same sensibility that marked the festival. Toward the end of the set, Owusu jumped into the crowd as fans, new and old, moshed around him. Before he made his way back to the stage, he told those around him to bow down. All in all, Owusu made the most of an unwieldy slot.
Sunday, August 28
When LCD Soundsystem and The Strokes come into dialogue with one another — by virtue of them both being headliners — there’s always going to be a glaring fact: While LCD Soundsystem doesn’t have anything left to prove, The Strokes have been clawing uphill to prove themselves since their debut hit the charts.
These days, the band’s answer mostly involves cool detachment and an expensive lighting setup. They’ve given up on proving anything beyond the fact that their music is fun, easy to listen to and predicated on a structural simplicity that’s still as hard to come by today as it was when Is This It dropped in 2001. If LCD Soundsystem was the wizened soothsayer at the turn of the century, the Strokes were its faster, more impulsive, but no less intentional counterpart. Their act has always been made for young, dumb fun; at the least, they’ve owned it.
But The Strokes’ hedonism has become less outré than it was in 2001. The world has aged around the band, and meanwhile, it’s been caught up in myopic debates about its own importance.
Their set, which looks more stadium-glam than indie-wham, cut a dissonant figure to the image the band has promoted from day one. Rather than complementing an inherently brash group, The Strokes’ visuals and set gave the appearance of stadium rock. Staid and airless, the set felt most like a moneyed display of the band’s success. On Sunday, The Strokes were likely the only band at the festival to put on a fake-out encore — for their fun and games, “Is This It” was cut from the set to stick to an 11 p.m. curfew.
At a festival where nearly every act approached the extremes of idiosyncrasy, still nobody managed to do it like Caroline Polachek.
For one, she’s an astoundingly present artist: When the sun set during “Door,” she asked if anyone noticed it, just before she sang the line “now there’s the sunset.” During “Breathless”: “I love how all the guys over there” — she waved her arm in the general direction of stage right — “are lip syncing.” Polachek, who encouraged the crowd to participate throughout the set, created a calming atmosphere perfect for recharging before the night’s acts.
Her set was also impressive for the way her tracks were organized: 50 minutes isn’t a lot of time to survey a discography, but Polachek filled her slot with some 13 tracks. Her setlist included two new tracks (“Sunset” and “Smoke”), her hits and a smattering of tracks that show off her dynamism, providing one of the few sets at the festival that felt not like a sampling, but a complete show.
At the end of her set, Polachek shouted “See you at The Strokes!” She did it better.
It’s astonishing just how many hits Sparks has: “Angst in My Pants,” “Tips for Teens,” “Music That You Can Dance To,” “The Number One Song in Heaven,” “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.” Those are just some of the ones they played at the Rose Bowl on Sunday; brothers Ron and Russel Mael started out in the ’70s, and on Sunday, they offered a look at why their act has stuck around so long — and why it’s been so imitated over the years.
The two have a brand of quirk all their own. Russel, the emotive one, ran the show while the stoic Ron managed the keyboard. Swinging through a five-decade-deep catalog, Sparks commanded a crowd eager to move to the disco the band has been playing since they started.
The brothers, who started Sparks in Los Angeles, seemed happy to be playing to a hometown crowd after a stint of festival shows in Japan. During what he pointed out was the band’s last show of the year, Russel announced that Sparks has a new album waiting in the wings, with a tour planned next year — and another movie musical in the making.
They’re not slowing down anytime soon.