Just Like Heaven Festival Is A Nostalgic Stroll Through Indie Rock Memory Lane

Just before Yeah Yeah Yeahs launched into their breakout song “Maps” at Just Like Heaven, Karen O took a moment to reflect. “Maps” is the band’s love song, she announced, and she dedicated it to all the women who had taken the stage earlier that day; Peaches, Ladytron, Fever Ray, and Azealia Banks, among others. She also dedicated the song to all the mothers in the crowd, of which there were many, because “there’s nothing more badass than being a mom.” “Maps” may be Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ version of a love song, but 2023’s Just Like Heaven Fest as a whole was a love letter to indie rock fans.

With artists like The Walkmen, Hot Chip, STRFKR, The Bravery, and MGMT performing the entirety of their debut album Oracular Spectacular, the one-day Just Like Heaven could have easily taken place in the year 2007. But thankfully for the thousands of fans who flocked to Brookside at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on May 13th, it was very much happening in 2023 (and food vendors were accepting Apple Pay to prove it!). “These are all the songs I grew up listening to so this festival makes me super nostalgic,” a man in the crowd remarked to me while watching Hot Chip perform, who got the crowd jumping around to all their hits from their early LPs and 2022’s Freakout/Release. And judging by all the vintage band t-shirts I saw people wearing while walking back-and-forth between the two stages, the same sentiment was felt by the masses.

It was impossible not to feel especially nostalgic during MGMT’s set, which was designed to emphasize the feeling. Opening with “Time To Pretend,” the band performed their 2007 debut album front-to-back before closing with “Love Always Remains,” a song that appeared on their 2005 debut EP. Videos of the duo performing in their early days were projected on the screens behind them, intercut with trippy ai-generated clips of people smiling and dancing. Before launching into the fan-favorite track “Kids,” giant papier-mâché figures made to look like the band came out on stage for a skit reenacting when the song was written. The year was 2002 and they decided to skip out on a college freshman party to hole up in their dorm room and write music — that’s when the iconic riff from “Kids” was born. Andrew VanWyngarden, providing a voice-over for the skit, said it had always been a dream of theirs to perform in front of a crowd of thousands of people. That dream has now become a reality many times over, as well as the rockstar lifestyle the duo were imagining while cooking up “Time To Pretend” in their dorm room on a Friday night.

MGMT Just Like Heaven Fest 2023
Photo by Rachel Polack, courtesy of Goldenvoice

Like MGMT, Yeah Yeah Yeahs also ran through their early aughts hits like “Zero” and “Y Control” while also interspersing them with recent tracks off their Grammy Award-winning LP Cool It Down. Though their set clocked in at just over an hour, the band made the most of their allotted performance time: true rockstar Karen O had three outfit changes and Nick Zinner paused to photograph the crowd. Before the band closed out the night with back-to-back raucous renditions of “Heads Will Roll” and “Date With The Night,” which nearly every person at the festival was thrashing along to, Karen O led the crowd in a “Happy Birthday” sing-along to her husband Barney Clay who was present in the crowd.

While no one else had as many outfit changes as Karen O, several other artists got creative with their stage looks. STRFKR, who serenaded the early afternoon crowd with chilled-out tracks like “Rawnald Gregory Erickson The Second” and “Golden Light,” took the stage in matching NASA space suits. They then invited fans to the stage who were dressed up like astronauts (helmet included!) to dance alongside them as they performed. Fever Ray is known for their expert costuming (I mean, just look at their recent press photos), and they didn’t disappoint at Just Like Heaven. Bandleader Karin Dreijer’s look was complete with ghoulish makeup and an oversized suit while their fellow band members’ outfits included a golden jumpsuit with various zodiac symbols and a massive cloud hat paired with a green rain jacket.

For the most part, all the performances of the day went off without a hitch. The only exception was Azealia Banks, whose 40-minute set was delayed nearly half an hour for what seemed to be technical difficulties. What she lost in tardiness she made up for in energy, delivering pumped-up numbers like her latest single “New Bottega” and breakout “212.” Upon first thought, Azealia Banks’ inclusion in an indie rock festival lineup might be confusing, but as she put it on Instagram, it actually makes perfect sense. “Fun Fact: the very first song I ever wrote was over Ladytron’s ‘Seventeen.’ Junior year of high school. I posted it to MySpace and made my Fader debut two weeks later,” she wrote. “This line up is making my little indie rock heart sing,” she added. And I was inclined to agree.

Azealia Banks Just Like Heaven Fest 2023
Photo by Blair Brown, courtesy of Goldenvoice

For the majority of the crowd — people in their 30s and 40s — Just Like Heaven was an opportunity to re-live their youth. And thanks to the elder millennial demographic, Just Like Heaven was one of the more laid-back festivals I’ve attended. I even overheard a passerby note that it was the “least scary festival crowd” they had ever been in. Picnic blankets dotted the grounds with couples enjoying the music from afar (very few people were camping out at the crowd barrier all day) and there was even a sand pit with toys available for the many young children who tagged along to enjoy. Someone sitting next to me on the grass watching Fever Ray even whipped out their crotchet to work on while watching the set (they said they were making socks). Though the Southern California sun was harsh for most of the day, plenty of trees and boba tea stands provided much-appreciated respite from the heat. It was an ideal environment to bask in the collective nostalgia of early to mid-aughts indie rock, reminisce on the genre’s heyday, and (hopefully) inspire a new generation of indie music lovers.