First City Fest Trades on Monterey Pop’s Legacy

In summer 1967, the sleepy town of Monterey, Calif., roared to life — hosting the first, and only, Monterey Pop Festival at its county fairgrounds. Jimi Hendrix lit his guitar on fire, Janis Joplin redefined the blues and Otis Redding staged a soul revue for the ages. It was the first widely publicized festival of its kind, in which rock and pop took center stage. Monterey Pop laid the groundwork for what would become an American cultural tradition — and lucrative money-making institution — the summer music festival.

In 2013, Paul Billings of Goldenvoice traded on that Summer of Love legacy by organizing the inaugural First City Festival, striving to develop a specific curatorial vision that melded with the calm, coastal environs of Northern California. Held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the very same site as Monterey Pop, First City is a far cry from the countercultural explosion that was its predecessor.

In many ways, First City is indicative of the niche role that indie rock, and most guitar-based rock music, now plays in today’s popular culture. The aim is to serve as an alternative to the grandiose, densely packed, senses-shattering experiences of America’s largest music festivals.

This year’s iteration will feature performances by CocoRosie, Best Coast, Future Islands, Phantogram, Beck and many others, along with a festival-closing set by Cincinnati indie rockers the National on Aug. 24.

The inspiration for First City came from a one-off Mumford and Sons concert at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in 2012. Billings had worked on its promotion and saw potential in the venue’s historic location. “We kind of just fell in love with the vibe and look and feel of the site of Monterey,” he says. “We thought it’d be really fun to do a small, intimate, boutique festival in this old town.”

Last year’s maiden voyage did brisk business (a sold-out Saturday and near sell-out for the entire weekend), with high-profile indie acts MGMT, Passion Pit and Modest Mouse topping the bill. But it was First City’s non-musical attractions that separated it from the pack: a vaudeville stage — complete with old-world entertainment (magicians, contortionists) — an on-site carnival with rides and games, and the Unique USA marketplace, which sold a broad array of American-made goods at Internet-competitive prices. All three attractions will return this year.

Sonja Rasula, owner and founder of Unique USA, says its mission statement is to “educate the masses on what conscious consumerism is.”

Festival ticket prices have increased over last year by $5 per day to $79.75, with VIP weekend passes selling for $289.50. Those VIP passes are bundled with a number of perks, including special viewing areas, premium bar and lounge access and a commemorative shirt and poster. Sales have been steady, on a par with last year, and Billings expects a significant sales bump in August after other major festivals, particularly Outside Lands, have taken place.

The National bassist Scott Devendorf is looking forward to the band’s First City debut, citing the group’s seasoned approach to festival performance and penchant for hushed balladry as a natural fit for the Monterey Fairgrounds.

“Our music can be all over the place as far as dynamics go,” Devendorf says. “As we’ve played more festivals over the years we have actually incorporated some of the quieter numbers into our sets. But I think it took a while to get to the point to be confident enough to do that.”

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