Over the past few years, festivals have grown in popularity, with new ones popping up left and right, each one pushing the end of festival season with hopes to make the summer last until October. Each new festival brings it’s own vibe, mission statement and lineup, ranging from little indie gatherings with twelve bands all the way to massive, multi-day festivals featuring big names and huge lineups. In its first year, Kaaboo has proved to be the latter, and has managed to do so with both style and success.
Held at the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, Kaaboo promised a three day experience filled with music, art, food and comedy, and with 7 stages, over 100 performers, a huge array of food from all over the world and live art across the grounds. Thankfully, it held true to its word and even had a few surprises along the way.
The lineup (arguably the most important factor for music festivals) was diverse with a little something for everyone, with artists ranging from 90’s standbys like No Doubt, Sheryl Crow, Snoop Dogg, 311 and Counting Crows to more modern favorites including Spoon, Foster The People, Neon Trees and The Killers. Funk and Americana were featured equally, with performances by Trombone Shorty, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Orgone, Bonnie Raitt, The White Buffalo and The Zac Brown Band.
One of my favorite aspects of music festivals is that they are usually a reflection of the city hosting them. In this case, Kaaboo was a near perfect representation of San Diego, CA, with performances from a number of local surfer-reggae bands including Slightly Stoopid and Dirty Heads as well as SD natives Switchfoot. One of the stages became a classic after-hours rave tent with a solid lineup of electronic acts like Big Gigantic, Icona Pop, Griz and Girl Talk, providing a fun, if not sweaty way to end each night.
Thankfully, Kaaboo didn’t just focus on the music–there were huge art displays, with many of them evolving over the course of the event. The food was both delicious and varied, if not a bit expensive–$12 for a couple “street” tacos seems a bit ridiculous, though this is expected at every festival. The vendors were local and the craft beer was a nice touch, though San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. was notably absent. When the hot sun became a bit too much, the gorgeous comedy tent provided a some respite with large fans, chandeliers, a full bar and ample seating. The comics were well selected, featuring Lewis Black, Joel McHale, Iliza Shlesinger and Tig Notaro.
With the debut of such a large scale event, corporate sponsorship is expected, though there were times it seemed a tad excessive, with a number of Mercedes Benz’s parked around the fairgrounds (they did, after all sponsor the main stage) and graffiti art “brought to you by Coors”. While at first glance, this feels a bit icky, one will quickly realize that it’s a small price to pay for inflatable surfaces and free spray paint for festival goers to try their hand at street art. Some of the other corporate sponsors were welcomed and delicious, with free bags of Kettle Chips and Skinny Pop popcorn in booths scattered about the area. The most important factor here is in the infrastructure, and it’s clear where the corporate money went–to large stages, fantastic lighting rigs and great sound.
Once you accept the fact that you will do some walking, everything is pretty close and easy to find. This was great because one could easily wander from the hooks of Foster The People to dance at Dirty Heads and Los Lobos before getting some laughs in with Chris D’Elia–all before the likes of Spoon, X and headliners Snoop Dogg, No Doubt and The Killers.
The only unfortunate factor here was the way the set times were organized, with all outdoor music ending by 10pm. This led to a number of big name bands booked for the same slots on the same day, forcing the audience to either pick one or repeatedly walk the quarter mile between Snoop Dogg and No Doubt. This was sad as both artists put on incredible lively performances, and it was a shame to have to miss a minute of either act.
The early cutoff of outdoor music was frustrating, as there was a ton of great bands that ended abruptly, leaving audiences to wander the empty stages before shuffling out the front gates or into the DJ tent (which definitely helped lengthen the nights before heading home). Judging by the neighborhood, this was probably unavoidable due to potential noise complaints, but it would have been nice to have live music later into the evening.
One of the upsides to music ending later would be to potentially shorten the festival to two days. While this may sound like blasphemy, three days in the hot San Diego sun is enough to burn out even the most seasoned festival goers, making the Sunday audiences weary and less than enthusiastic. This was especially noticeable in the comedy tent, where by the last day the audience was so lethargic and sweaty that the response to what could have been great comedy sets was underwhelming and apathetic. This was sad to see, because Tig Notaro’s smart yet subtle brand of humor was all but lost on the weary audience.
Of course, the extra day is a minor gripe since too much of a good thing is rarely something to complain about. Thankfully the numerous hydration stations, lounge areas and great food provided space for all festival goers to prevent any serious wear and tear on their bodies.
Throughout the weekend, various surprises kept appearing, from special guests, creepy circus performers and gorgeous butterfly dancers greeting guests at the gate. One of the strangest features was the artificial beach in front of the main stage, but it hardly felt out of place among the palm trees and seagulls, and unlike many festivals (looking at you FYF), Kaaboo allowed guests to bring blankets and beach towels, which provided comfortable seating for some of the slower, romantic acts featured on the main stage. Another surprise was the relative ease of security and cleanliness, which was present without being intrusive while the festival grounds, for the most part, remained clean and easy to navigate.
“Easy” is an operative word for Kaaboo–allowing children of all ages to attend and offering complimentary trams that led back to the parking lot. It was also, for better or worse, easy on the ears, with few bands being too extreme or divisive. These factors make it great for families or first time festival goers, though it still provides enough quality entertainment for the most seasoned festival veterans. All in all, Kaaboo put on an impressive debut and is sure to just get better over time, making it a potential hot spot for locals and visitors alike. With 100+ artists booked alongside guest chefs and standup comics, the $259 for a three day wristband seems reasonable, and I’m looking forward to see what next year’s lineup has to offer.