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Concert Review: Jack White, Neil Young, Pretenders Lead a Lively, ’80s-Leaning Arroyo Seco Festival

Neil Young and Jack White brought the noise, Milk Carton Kids brought the niceties, and the Bangles and Alanis Morissette made sure nostalgia was covered.

If Desert Trip, the one-off festival of golden gods Goldenvoice produced in 2016, was “Oldchella,” what handy appellation should we give its more modest but more sustainable successor of these last two summers, Arroyo Seco Weekend? Olderbutnotthatoldchella? At the second annual gathering, held this weekend at Brookside at the Rose Bowl, you could get bogged down in the analytics of who exactly this none-too-tightly-focused fest is geared toward. (The median attendee age seemed to be mid- or late 30s, though the span was about as wide as for the performers, who ranged from early 20s to late 70s.) Or you could forego demographic studies and just give in to the good vibes generated by all that grass… golf-course grass. Why ask why Generations Y, X and Boomer get on so well, when they have Jack White, endless artisanal cocktails, vegan rolls, grassy knolls and “You Oughta Know” nostalgia to bridge the gaps?

Year one of Arroyo Seco had been a resounding success, except for two major problems, both solved this second time around. One had been the positioning of the 2017 main stage, which was in an undeniably pretty spot next to the residential hillside, but was also in a small enough area that a bottleneck resulted long before headliners Tom Petty (sigh) and Mumford & Sons took the stage. That was solved this year by flipping the entire east/west map and putting the two bigger stages in the larger (if less scenic) area directly north of the Rose Bowl. Needless to say, the crowd expanded to fill the extra space. An even more important improvement: the 20-degree dip in temperatures from last year’s triple-digit scorcher, Goldenvoice apparently having negotiated more favorable terms with the gods of June gloom. “Blister in the Sun,” this year, was merely a Violent Femmes song, not a door prize.

One thing that didn’t really need much improvement was the eclectic-from-the-get-go booking policy. This year Arroyo Seco offered a little of everything, except for anything that had the slightest patina of hip-hop, which is maybe a feature and not a flaw to the AARP-ists who might think they are paying $450 for VIP passes just so they can not hear anyone rap for 48 hours. From a critical point of view, it’s a regrettable elephant not in the room, although it’s hard to think of many other festivals that do make room for classic jazz (Pharaoh Sanders), new jazz (Kamasi Washington), country (Margo Price), neo-bluegrass (Trampled by Turtles), blues (Gary Clark Jr.), indie rock (Margaret Glaspy), old soul (Irma Thomas), world music (Seu Jorge), fop-rock (Belle & Sebastian) and, of course, the flaming-copulation genre (Kings of Leon). There were even at least a couple of artists whose work might count as challenging, on a bucolic weekend otherwise designed to pose as few threats to comers as possible, notably the socially charged storytelling of Hurray for the Riff Raff and Fantastic Negrito.

And, Saturday night, there was the grungey double bill of dreams — not grunge in its official early ’90s classification but in the pre- and post-Seattle incarnations of loud, controlled messes of guitar noise personified by Neil Young and Jack White. If only these two had shared the stage even for a minute — but the only sign of their mutual admiration society was White heralding the coming of “Uncle Neil.” But it was striking to see how much they have in common, including how they both form huddles with the other players on stage, as if they actually get a kick out of bouncing ideas off of their hired hands more than they enjoy preening. Not that they are above crowd-pleasing, too. White performed a healthy dollop of the swinging, wild ride that is his recent “Boarding House Reach,” but while in his regular shows he might throw the familiar thump of either “Seven Nation Army” or “Steady as She Goes” as a bone, with a festival crowd like this, he knows it’s a good idea to end with both.

Following White on Saturday, Young looked to be going very much his own way at the outset by opening his set with a nearly 20-minute rendition of “Like an Inca,” a little-remembered number from 1982’s “Trans” that dropped out of his setlist for about 35 years before recently reappearing a few times. That may have delighted hardcore Young-ians eager to see what Young would be up to on one of only two scheduled dates with the backing band Promise of the Real this year, but it probably made fairer-weather fans a little nervous. And maybe that wasn’t helped when he soon became unhappy with his crew and/or the production. “It’s a banner night for playing songs in the wrong key,” he complained, before actually abandoning one tune because he couldn’t hear himself, and rejecting an instrument that was brought to him (“I love this guitar. It’s too bad”). “My God, I can see the reviews,” he quipped. “Just bring me something. And when we get it, whatever it is, it’s gonna decide what we do. We know a lot of songs.” At about that point, he and/or his guitar tuners got their mojo back, and the set got to burn out a couple of hours later rather than fade away. It included crowd favorites he’s rarely done in recent years, from the delicate “Lotta Love” to an inflamed “Ohio.” None of the choices are lovelier than Buffalo Springfield’s “I Am a Child,” dedicated here to “the families — the ones we really do care about,” a nod to Melania Trump’s jacket.

Young was not the only performer invoking the immigration issue, though many avoided mentioning the president by name. The Specials, who’ve served as veritable poster boys for racial integration in England going back decades, were not shy about mentioning Trump. Violent Femmes drew cheers by singing “I hate the president” during “I Hate the TV.” A subtler tack was taken by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. who said, “This goes out to all the families out there that have been separated — you know what’s going on,” before performing “The Valley,” a moving song about early Mexican settlers as true working-class heroes. Kamasi Washington prefaced his huge jazz ensemble’s performance of “Truth” by saying, “You’re going to hear us play five melodies at one time. It’s a metaphor for how beautiful this world would be if we came together… Diversity is something to be celebrated, not tolerated.”

Nostalgia is definitely something to be celebrated at Arroyo Seco Weekend, too — especially ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia, (although it clearly goes back a little further than that when you’ve got a lineup featuring Robert Plant, 69, Young, 72, and Sanders, Thomas and Aaron Neville, all 77).

On paper, it’s easy to make a judgment on Arroyo Seco for making a good part of the bill seem like Throwback Saturday and Sunday. In reality, pretty much all the artists relying on older material did a hell of a job of putting those across, including Alanis Morissette, whose string of “Jagged Little Pill” songs made you want to immediately run out and invest in the new theatrical musical based around that album. (Oops, too late.) You would have to stretch to find any irony — sorry, couldn’t resist — in the fact that Morissette put on one of the weekend’s most irresistible shows. Neither is there any sense in denying that the most viscerally exciting music of the weekend came from the Pretenders and the Specials, both focusing on material from Reagan’s first term.

Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders were a blast, in spite of the lack of other original members: It’s hard to overstate just how big a thrill it is to hear “Thumbelina,” which is not a slow song to begin with, go into a long double-time rockabilly coda. Hynde wore a shirt (also for sale in the merch booth) bearing the words “Don’t Pet Me — I’m Working,” and she remains the service animal of our dreams. Also great were the Revolution, who had original members to spare but not the key one, proving that funk is stronger than death. If you wanted a rare example of an intact original lineup, the Bangles had that, for the first time since 1983, having just added O.G. bassist Annette Zalinskas (from their indie “Bangs” days) back into the fold. A pre-Bangs bassist who was in an earlier band with Vicki Peterson, Amanda Hills Podany, also popped up for a number. When Susanna Hoffs sang “Eternal Flame,” it felt less a love song, more an expression of sisterly solidarity surviving decades.

Other highlights included a trio of notable covers. Margo Price saluted last year’s late and eternally lamented headliner, Petty, with a cover of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” On another stage Saturday afternoon, Milk Carton Kids were debuting their new formation, in which they’re dropping the acoustic duo format to actually employ a full band. Their magnificently harmonized outside pick: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” But the standout might have come from an unlikely quarter: “Idol” alumnus Haley Reinhart knocked one out of the park by taking on the 1930 standard “My Baby Just Cares for Me” with Jeff Goldblum’s jazz band.

The best slow burn of the weekend belonged to Pharaoh Sanders, playing the very first set of the weekend to take place at the ancillary Willow stage, which looked to be about double the size of last year’s tent, and was frequently full, even for a septuagenarian outlier like Sanders. He started off slow, letting his ace band do some of the heavy lifting, and the crowd might have wondered: Was he still up to the task? The gradually accelerating set proved the answer was yes, especially when he got to a exhilarating 10-minute closer that showed he still has the dexterity and breath control of a sax legend a third his age. The older demographics in attendance at Arroyo Seco could take heart: You’re never too old to be an exquisite tease.

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Concert Review: Jack White, Neil Young, Pretenders Lead a Lively, '80s-Leaning Arroyo Seco Festival

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