When We Were Young- We Became Experts at Sneaking In & Cutting Lines
I was still hungover from Choking Victim’s secret set in Long Beach at Freebirds Salon twelve hours before, and already running forty minutes late to the festival, when I remembered that I needed to stop at Target and pick up sunscreen and vitamin C. These are the indicators I observe as I age year to year. Chalk it up to experience but the last thing I wanted was to be sun burned and hungover for day two of a very long weekend. My urgency for arrival was based solely on watching The Getup Kids play the soundtrack to my early adolescence and I was not going to let the naivety of Orange County’s ‘Surf Goth’ youth hold me up. I waited in the main entrance line for the When We Were Young festival and watched cigarette packs get emptied out onto the wooden tables, and a barrage of drug paraphernalia get confiscated and disposed of while the newly minted team of hired security guards emptied pockets. It became apparent within minutes that I was going to have to find an alternative entry if I wanted to get in on time, and I began to assess the grounds. I had already managed to catch a ride on The Observatory staff bus, and I recalled an employee entrance around the outskirts of the festival grounds. I removed myself from the line and headed back to the bus stop and found a gap in a security barrier.
The second I was in the festival I hustled to the main stage as I heard Matt Pryor introduce the band and then kick off the set with “Holiday”, an appropriate choice for a band that seldom plays in California, especially outside of Los Angeles. The Getup Kids played mostly recognizable ‘hits’ from their back catalog, including fan favorites, “I’m a loner dottie; a rebel” and “Don’t Hate Me.” Perhaps it was the 2:30 time slot but the majority of the crowd seemed to be more concerned with getting a spot for Joyce Manor’s upcoming set, than watching one of the emo genre’s most celebrated offerings. I made the conscience decision to skip water, and go direct to alcohol if I was going to make it another 8 hours. This was of course a festival that had no known age demographic, though it was obviously geared to suburban alumni, and we were still debating if the Observatory was going to have another Beach Goth debacle on their hands. What followed for the remainder of the weekend was nothing short of a miracle in terms of organization and overall vibe. The Observatory managed to gather a crowd of over 10,000 without a single observed incident by the eyes of the fans in attendance. Considering I’ve seen brawls break out in the same parking lot as the outdoor stages to crowds of under 100, it was truly a celebratory feat to pull this off without mass hysteria.
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We watched Joyce Manor’s incredibly well received set, including “Eighteen” and “Falling in Love Again”, from afar in the Romantic Rock tent that was displaying Matt Skiba and Hunter Burgan’s paintings and art prints. When it was announced that Skiba himself would be doing an impromptu signing at the booth, the tent became swarmed by Alkaline Trio and Blink 182 fan-girls, clamoring at a chance to get a personalized autograph and selfie. I marveled at the efforts these young women displayed to share the little remaining shade that titivated the outskirts of the beer garden, making a clear decision that risking color to their pale arms and faces was not worth the raffle prize signed by the cowriter of the lyrics tattooed on their arms and shoulders. When Alkaline Trio took the stage at 6:00, they had thrown all caution out the window and stood proudly in the sun, baking while singing with Dan Andriano on “Every Thug Needs a Lady”, as well as Alkaline Trio favorites such as “Mercy Me”, “Stupid Kid” and the band’s final performance of the evening, “Radio.”
The set, which followed Streetlight Manifesto’s ska-induced contribution to the night was a welcomed reunification of the crowd, which began to divide after what I could only describe as a circle pit of skanking dolts. It should be clearly noted that those skanking were quickly isolated and reassigned to the beer garden, where they were surprisingly well received by portions of the younger audiences, who had never witnessed such primitive dancing. Nonetheless, Tomas Malnoky still packs the same punch that he did with Catch-22, and has no hurdles with winning over an audience unfamiliar with his sound blending of ska, punk and reggae. Highlights from the set were the horn heavy “The Three of Us” as well as “We will Fall Together” and “Down, Down, Down to Mephisto Café.”
When We Were Young We Discovered What Came Before Us
The Dickies, Ch3 and Mike Watt all had noticeably older crowds inside, with many artists and performers watching from the upper rafters and stage. Though there was sporadic moshing and dancing throughout the indoor sets early on Saturday afternoon, the crowds weren’t as crazy as your typical observatory punk show. I sometimes forget the privilege we share being in the proximity of punk’s early generation and began to reflect on my first opportunities of seeing The Dickies and Ch3 performing at the Galaxy over a decade ago. They were a nice late addition to the already stacked bill, and definitely an opportune time for today’s generation to peer a glimpse into the past. Highlights included The Dickies “Gigantor” and Watt’s “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs.”
Guttermouth closed out the indoor portion of the festival, who started their set with lead singer Mark Adkins vomiting on the side of the stage. Their performance was still well received, especially notables such as “123 Slam”, “I’m Destroying the World” and their cover of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.”
When We Were Young We Got Really Excited For The Headliners
Cage the Elephant took the main stage before AFI and treated the crowd to the most radio-friendly set of the evening, featuring songs from their recent grammy winning album, Tell me I’m Pretty as well as previous singles such as “Come a Little Closer”, “Shake me Down”, and “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” They were clearly the most successful of the contemporary groups at the festival over the entirety of the weekend and had a dedicated fan base that sang in unison, while Morrissey & AFI groupies piled into the growing crowd, hoping to get close enough to get an opportune spot for an iPhone photo of their beloved front-men.
AFI played a set compiling a career of both modern rock chart toppers and 90s skate punk tracks including their set opener “Girls not Grey”, which even drew attention from Smiths enthusiasts. Davey Havok, though noticeably older than the last time I witnessed him take a stage, still retains the same high octane energy his fans have grown accustomed to expecting and kept the energy high in the final hours before Morrissey treated fans to one of the most surprisingly strong sets of the long day.
When Morrissey finally appeared on stage, the temperature had dropped significantly, and fans clamored together to not only fit into the overcrowded pit, but to keep body temperatures warm. When the crowd recognized the opening notes to There is a Light (That Never Goes Out), the set’s opener, and one of three Smith’s songs they would be treated to (a truly rare feat for a Morrissey show) the energy of the day reached its’ peak. Nobody saw it coming, and that’s what makes these events worth going to. Previously, I questioned if the younger audience in attendance were familiar with any of Morrissey’s thirty-five year career, but the amazement displayed on their faces proved to me not only that I was wrong, but that it wouldn’t have mattered. The song has become such a staple of youth culture, it will never vanish off of mixtapes, or in their case, playlists. Morrissey has gained a reputation in later years as not catering to the crowd, and in many circles is considered to be selfish with his song selection. The set did have some lulls, especially midway through, but popular solo tracks such as Suedehead and Ouija Board Ouija Board, kept the crowd’s attention in between the Smith’s singles, Shoplifter’s of the World Unite and How Soon is Now?, arguably their biggest hit in America in their prime. Morrissey’s final words to the audience were an important reminder to not forget to, “Be good to yourselves; Be good to your mothers; Be good to animals; and God Bless You” before teasing a walk off the stage and then blindsiding the festival with a performance of Judy is a Punk, written by the Ramones. The cover was a welcome return to the energy earlier in the set, and got people’s feet moving before the night came to an end.
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Overall the evening was a win for both the fans and the Observatory, who managed to keep any issues quieter than they had previously managed at last year’s Beach Goth, despite a similar crowd. It also left me with a memory I hope to never forget and reminded me why I don’t go to these events solely for the music. At the closing hour of the first night, when the temperature dropped, and the Morrisey fans became reckless with anticipation, I found myself approached by a crew of four teenage girls, all dressed cohesively different than their counterpart. They playfully asked if I knew the man standing to our left who was handing out joints to the crowds. I replied I didn’t and when I turned to walk away they asked me if I would smoke something a stranger gave me. Though I commended them on finding an adult in this compromising situation, I choked on the irony of the question being directed to me, of all people, who at their age would have avoided an adult in a comparable situation. I reminded them that they were kids, and no matter what I said, someone in their group of four would do it anyways. They agreed and asked me to join, which I politely declined, and as I walked away, with the cloud of smoke behind me, I felt a lot less older than I did when I arrived, and lot more like When We Were Young…
Day 2 Is Much More Difficult When You Aren’t Young…
Hoping for a warmer day, and continuing the tradition of being unprepared and late, I raced over to the Observatory, traveling with the whole crew so we could catch Tijuana Panthers anticipated return to Santa Ana. The band didn’t disappoint and at 2:00 pm, had already incentivized the rest of the hungover attendees of Day 1 to get out of bed and be ready to do it all over again. “Playing for the Old”, blasted through the speakers as we made our haul up to the front of the stage, followed by “Foolish”, one of my favorite tracks off of 2015’s Poster. Following behind us were legions of local fans who sandwiched together to hear one of Long Beach’s favorites belt out set highlights such as “Cherry Street” and the band’s closer, “Praying knees”, which played us out as we ran to the Observatory Indoor stage to catch the start of The Stitches. As we ran to the stage, we were notified that Agent Orange would not be performing and The Buttertones, who’s first set we were unable to attend, were going to play later in the evening around 6:15.
We stopped and watched a couple songs by Dr. Dog, a personal favorite, who played “Bring My Baby Back”, before we caught The Stitches treat the audience to a fully charged set of Orange County punk staples including “Sixteen”, “My Baby Hates Me”, “Amphetamine Girl” and “Better Off Dead” which was sung complete while the crowd of rowdy youth on the floor below chased each other in circles, hoping to leave their comrades in stitches from their intense moshing. We left satisfied, and cruised back to the Dancing in the Street Stage to catch Turnstile, whose set was by far the heaviest I witnessed over the weekend, and who’s fans were standouts among the other Dancing in the Street crowds.
Saves the Day took the stage next and kept the energy high early on with throw backs from 2001’s Stay What You Are such as “Firefly” and “Cars and Calories” as well as “Shoulder to the Wheel” from 1999’s Through Being Cool. The set was well-received, but lulled after a confusing performance of “Freakish” that dropped the energy and lost a lot of the pack. Their closer, “At Your Funeral”, brought it back around but not enough to keep the kids held down, many who wandered off to get a good spot for D.I. and Together Pangea.
When We Were Young We Got Excited To See New Bands And Were Respectful to Our Elders
D.I. played an impressive set, filled with dense moshing and circle pit antics. Highlights of the
performance were “OC Life”, as well as the punk rock classics “Johnny’s Got a Problem” and my personal favorite “Richard Hung Himself”. The highpoint of the set was when singer, Casey Royer surprised the kids with an impromptu performance of The Adolescents’ Amoeba, which slowed down the mosh pit to a sing along. The band, noticeably older than most of the fans in attendance, let alone the other artists, proved that they still have a draw among the local youth, and deserve the missing attention that many of their counterparts have received, after having lived considerably more illustrious careers.
Together Pangea played a phenomenally well attended set, and was one of several highpoints to come throughout the later portion of the day. This band has proven time and time again, that a three piece with the right members is just as strong, if not stronger, than the ensembles of groups they share the stage with. William Keegan, who serves as both guitarist and lead singer, tore through the set with fan favorites such as “Badillac”, “Too Drunk to Cum”, and their closer, “Sick Shit.”
Silversun Pickups followed on the opposite main stage, and played a collection of radio hits and throwbacks. Highlights included Nightlight and Panic Switch in addition to the band’s first major singles to receive airplay, Well Thought out Twinkles and Lazy Eye. Singer Brian Aubert’s well timed humor and bassist Nikki Monninger’s signature smile throughout the set were notable, as well as drummer, Chris Guanlao’s chaotic yet robotic drumming.
When We Were Young People Went Off When There Were No Parents Around
Though it was unfortunate at the time, as the set was so enjoyable, we heard the energy inside the Observatory indoor stage was going harder than it had throughout the weekend and went to check out No Parents. We were clearly underprepared upon arrival. The room was a frenzied free-for-all complete with stage diving, circle pits, crowd surfing, and sing alongs. No Parents have cemented themselves as one of the strongest, up and coming live acts currently going in LA right now, and with the addition of Melted frontman, Justin Eckeley on guitar, they appear to be showing no signs of slowing down. Singer Zoe Reign’s choice of a kilt proved easier access to flash the audience, especially while standing atop the front stage speakers, pacing back and forth. Dee Dee and Killien Leduke traded thrashed out bass lines and guitar licks while drummer Monte Najera kept the floor going strong with his cymbal heavy, drumming. Highlights of the set included the songs: Hey Illuminati, Looking for Lizards and the set closer Die Hippie Die, which is proving to become a sustainable anthem for LA’s punk youth. The set also featured new unreleased tracks, Hunting in Huntington, Over it, and Last One at the Party, which I hope to hear released properly in the future. The set also featured my favorite memory of day 2, when audience member, Sam Mankinen (Melted), snuck on stage to give Eckeley a kiss, before stage diving into the pit and landing straight on his face.
Other high points from the acts on the indoor stage included Sad Girl’s widely anticipated return to Orange County, following a full US tour with Chicano Batman, and “I Ran Away” from The Buttertones, who had already played a full set earlier in the day, and were accompanied by a packed room of adoring fans who celebrated hearing missing songs from the day’s first set.
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I would’ve loved to stay inside longer, but had to run out the backdoor to catch FIDLAR on the Main Stage.FIDLAR brought the crowd to a pinnacle of energy with set favorites such as “Cocaine”, “40 oz on Repeat”, and “Cheap Beer.” FIDLARs presence at the fest was probably the most talked about following their performance, and their audience stayed busy dripping in sweat for the remainder of the night. FIDLAR has no plans of turning down their volume as their popularity continues to grow.
Taking Back Sunday took the stage following FIDLAR but couldn’t keep in sync with one another, as they slanked through a set sloppier than the renditions of their pop punk songs that mall rats cover in VFWs and back yard parties. Despite several noteworthy performances including “Timberwolves at New Jersey” and “MakeDamnSure”, Taking Back Sunday has proven that falling back on once famous hits is an easier alternative to winning the audience over with newly written material, coupled with the same energy they once shared.
Before the Descendents made their triumphant return to Orange County to close out the evening, Choking Victim played a reunion show as the final performers on the Dancing in the Street Stage, and was one of my most enjoyable experiences throughout the weekend. Singer Stza, treated the crowd to OG classics with the tracks “500 Channels” and “Five Finger Discount”, while Drummer, Skwert wailed on his drums with a reggae punk back track, and bassist Alec Baillie played some of the most intricate basslines of the weekend. Set closers “Crack Rock Steady” and “Choking Victim” left the audience satisfied, many of whom had long given up hope of a reunion with one of punk’s most elusive musical acts.
Already feeling like the night couldn’t get any better, I slow crawled my way to the main stage, with a dead battery in my cell phone and a slowly dying feeling in my gut. I had to remind myself that if my conscience could endure 48 hours of this, I could conjure up enough juice for me to close out the evening as planned. I slugged into the beer tent with my team huddled together, now not for warmth, but simply to hold each other up. When Milo & Company came out, the applause rivaled the cheers from the Morrissey set the night before. It completely reinvigorated me, and I stood captivated watching the band effortlessly drill through song after song, without a hint of fatigue. How these four men, all over 50, could demonstrate this level of cohesive power is a marvel to be observed. Milo sang over the crowd on classics such as “Everything Sucks” and “I Don’t Want to Grow Up”, while Bill Stevenson destroyed his drums on “Coffee Mug.” The audience simply couldn’t contain their energy when Stephen Eggerton and Karl Alvarez played the opening riffs to “Hope” and “Suburban Home”, and completely drowned out the band with their assisting backtracks . The set was proof that not only is age a number, but that the Descendents don’t fall into a simple category or subsect of music. It can be argued that MOST of the bands that played at When We Were Young were directly or indirectly influenced by The Descendents. Their sound may have come from a certain era, one that is well celebrated in the beaches and suburbs of LA and Orange County, but their music has proven to stand the test of time, and they are still, after nearly forty years, one of the most intensely prolific bands to ever perform.
What the Observatory was able to do with this festival, opposed to previous efforts, was in itself a dream for people like me. As a child growing up in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, I worshipped the majority of the older bands at this show. I would stalk them through the pages of fanzines and mixtapes, and would drive hours to catch them play a 20 minute set in a bar, states away from my parents’ address. This show was a return on my investment of vigor as a music obsessed youth. A second chance to hear these bands perform to the crowd I knew they all deserved. In today’s age of buzz bands and common festival fare, When We Were Young, broke all the rules, and kept the formula simple: Book bands people care about and they will come together. The formula worked and I crossed a very specific detail off my bucket list: Survive an entire music festival without wanting to leave.
Words: Dave Unbuckled
Photos: Taylor Wong