The sun painted the surrounding mountains of San Bernardino’s San Manuel Amphitheater a golden green, the grassy fields of the massive venue were filled up with a hodgepodge of rockers, greasers and bikers all young and old. The Lost Highway festival was the juxtaposition of hot summer day music festival and motorcycle exposition, and it was nothing like anything I had experienced before.
The sunny day of music and bikes started around one PM, with Country-esque acts playing on the tiny Russ Brown stage situated between the Harley Davidson Quaid stage and the hundreds of custom motorcycles and booths dedicated to all things motorcycle lifestyle, including bike insurance companies, leather gear, bike parts manufacturers and everything in between. The sight of burly men with tattoos, beards and leather vests made me feel as if I was actually walking through an episode of Sons of Anarchy.
Exploring the festival’s almost horse shoe shaped grounds was a mission on it’s own, the gargantuan field was a trek to say the least, some attendees were spreading blankets and laying on the mostly sunny field parallel to the amphitheater all day in anticipation for the music to come later, which is laudable because I know my tragically Anglo-Saxon skin could not handle the sun that long (which it didn’t). Being a festival dedicated to motorcycles and music, I obviously saw a lot of goddamn motorcycles, revving at near deafening pops and their owners proudly showing off their work with the rictus of a champion. Every bike looked like they were forged out of sheer painstaking and meticulous craftsmanship.
A slate of asphalt parking lot was dedicated to Unknown Industries exhibitors popping gravity defying wheelies with the massive Harley’s for the crowd’s awe. The appeal of motorcycle culture may be at a lost with me, but to see people this besotted with their work or other two wheeled masterpieces is something to behold, it would be foolish to gainsay the hard work that goes into crafting and maintaining these badass machines. The actual amphitheater itself was closed off most of the day, the stage was dedicated to later performances from Chris Janson, Eli Young Band and headliner Toby Keith, so earlier on I traveled a perilous journey to the Quaid stage, I caught an incredible performance from opener Lindi Ortega.
Ortega put on an incredible performance, channeling her best Patsy Cline with a Wanda Jackson howl, she could transmute from mellifluous to devastating yell with amazing ease. Every song she played was rich with wonderful melodies and undeniable passion behind every word. In the lull between tunes, she filled the silence with hilarious banter, even if some of the tunes had a poignant touch, she sang with a warm smile to compliment the sunny day. The day time had an awesome set from Country Punks Lucero, but came Seven O’Clock was the first set I was waiting all day for: the almighty Reverend Horton Heat.
What can immediately be gathered about the legendary Rev Horton Heat is guitarist and vocalist Jim Heath’s batshit insane guitar prowess (if you have failed to complete “Psychobilly Freakout” on Guitar Hero, you have learned this the hard way). Their hour set was a non-stop explosion of mind melting guitar-riffs atop high-energy tunes that blur the line between Rockabilly and Punk. Listening to their music makes you feel like you were transported to the 1950’s on a surfboard, their music is perfect for the beach or the bike repair shop, which makes their presence at this festival very understandable.
Their wild rendition of my personal favorite Rev tune, “Marijuana”, was a highlight for me, moreover, they still play with young fervor all these years later. Heath jumped on bassist Jimbo Wallace’s stand-up bass at one point as he played it, they switched their respective instruments to give a reverent cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode”, Heath joked that the bass was the easy part in response to the crowd’s clamorous cheers. It’s been a good couple of years since I last saw the Rev and his crew, but they still can kick ass and take names like they did when they first debut, his music is as slick as the pompadour of many of his crowd members and as tough as the bikers in attendance as well.
After their set came a fun yet transient performance from melodic rockers The Brave Ones, their music had punk aggression yet welcoming melody very reminiscent of 1970’s Country, imagine if the Bouncing Souls spent more time in Memphis than in Jersey.
Then finally came the Quaid stage headliner everyone was waiting for, Punk legends Social Distortion. Notable tattooed tough guy Mike Ness and his band gave one hell of a show, going through their extensive catalog with a great energy, playing a lot of cuts from their now 25 year old eponymous record including “Story of my Life” and “Ball and Chain”.
Ness may look like tough but between songs he was immensely thankful to his hermetic audience and joked around, all these years later and he can be truly blown away with the scale of show he is playing, he even suggested playing there again next year. The set was nothing but hit after hit (though I would’ve loved to hear “1945”, I’m not complaining), plus an unexpected Hank Williams cover and closing with their now classic cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Fire”, every time I see them it always gets better and better, like the sonic equivalent to wine.
What is important to know about Social D is that while other bands broke up and came back a decade or more later, the Orange County-based outfit played on through all the vicissitude and hard times any band can experience in a career as long as theirs, if you haven’t seen the documentary “Another State of Mind”, about their precarious early 80’s tour, their resilience can be seen early on. Their longevity aside, their music is insatiably catchy and memorable and is very much epochal to any So-Cal punks upbringing. If you didn’t have the self-titled record or their seminal “Mommy’s Little Monster” album growing up, there is something seriously wrong with you (freak).
This festival commingled all of these scenes and fan bases amazingly. The punks, greasers and folksters all coalesced for this incredible festival and had something they could all enjoy, be it music or motorcycles.
Experiencing Lost Highway was almost like being immersed in a whole other world, with a widely diverse crowd along booming motorcycle engines, I can easily see myself going to this again next year, maybe with sunblock and a better understanding of motorcycles.
Kieran J. MacIntyre is a voracious music nerd of all genres, bass player and managing editor of M&C Music. You can find him on Twitter