Is there a more pleasant place to hold an eclectic, music/art/comedy/food festival than Del Mar, California? The organizers behind KAABOO — now in its fourth year — got it right picking the SoCal city as their home base. Located right next to the beach, there’s a permanent ocean breeze. The crowd is pleasant. The lack of dust is pleasant. The fact that it’s on fairgrounds means there are real bathrooms everywhere, a rare festival commodity. Pleasant, pleasant, pleasant.
My years working as a brand ambassador have made me something of a festival expert, so I was intrigued to check out this new breed of glamorous, intensely comfortable gathering — clearly catering to a slightly more sophisticated crowd. I wanted to see if all the pleasant-ness added up to something awesome or not. Because that’s the ultimate question, right?
Taking the tram from the parking lot into KAABOO, I was flooded with sense memories. I was born a stone’s throw away in La Jolla, CA, and some of my earliest recollection include being on the fairgrounds for the Del Mar County Fair. The tram is the same color as an Orange Julius and I remember riding it with my grandparents. This time I was going to see a music lineup that a first glance could be considered “epic bands with absent lead singers” — Robert Plant, Slash, TLC, the Wailers, Stone Temple Pilots… It was a little mismatched, a little odd — like the fest itself — and excitement levels were high.
Here’s what I found once I hit the grounds.
I like that KAABOO puts as much emphasis on comedy, culinary, and art as on the music. In addition to music headliners Foo Fighters, Halsey, Post Malone, Imagine Dragons, N.E.R.D., Katy Perry and Wiz Khalifa, there were also comedy sets in the “Laugh With Me” pavilion by Craig Ferguson, Iliza Shlesinger, Whitney Cummings and Judd Apatow. There were live murals being painted everywhere, and entire exhibition halls of art. If you wanted to rest your feet and watch a cooking demonstration by one of the brightest stars in the chef world, Michael Mina, Ludo Lefebvre, Marc Forgione, Michelle Bernstein, Daniela Soto-Innes were just a few of the names on hand.
Tech is in the mix, too. KAABOO feels like a festival of the future. You can load money onto your wristband to use it as a credit card, and you can pre-order food on their app to skip the line. It was like Coachella, Art Basel, and the mall had a baby who weekends at Vegas pool parties and enjoys a fine foie gras.
That’s not to say there weren’t touches of soul to balance the capitalism. I fell in love with a chill zone, decorated like a 1970’s living room, admired the stilt walkers and roller skaters spraying the crowd with bubbles, and savored the chance to slow down at a mini drive-in movie theater playing everything from Beetle Juice to old surf movies.
LEGENDS IN THE FLESH
Having N.E.R.D. at the fest felt like a great get for KAABOO. For me, it meant a chance to interview Chad Hugo, one half of The Neptunes (with Pharrell Williams). My interview was scheduled for 4:20 pm, which felt auspicious. How to start a conversation with someone responsible for songs that made the careers of Justin Timberlake, Kelis, Snoop, Robin Thicke, and scores of others? You don’t. You notice he’s early, waiting in the media room of KAABOO Del Mar, wearing a silver astronaut suit. You say “Hi, I’m early too.” And you ask what’s inspiring him these days.
He mentions the hurricane he just flew out of, back home in Virginia Beach; tattoos; and, of course, music. More snippets from our time together:
How are you evolving as an artist? How do you navigate your own evolving tastes and sounds with what your fans expect?
That’s an interesting question — because the new album is all minimal and it’s really mechanical. But it seems like it would give freedom to a listener to add their own take on it, in my opinion. With our first album, people still come up to me with tattoos inspired by that music. It just happened the other day. It’s awesome.
That’s beyond a compliment because it means something to them to the point they wanted to have it forever. Do you have any tattoos?
I’ve got this here on my arm, a lightning bolt in an ice cube. It’s meant to be a paradox. And on my bicep, I have a robot chameleon.
I have a pet chameleon! Do you as well?
I don’t. I’m just fascinated by how they change colors and blend in with their surroundings. It’s just there on my shoulder and I forget about it sometimes.
Because it’s doing its job – blending in. You should get one.
You’re right. Okay, I will.
So with your set tonight, any specific song you’re really excited to perform?
All of it. It’s performance art, we’ve developed the show with the dancers and the band. And with Pharrell, there’s always something to look at on the stage. And there’s an LED backdrop, and the songs push different tempos. We just put the listener into warp speed and try and take them on a journey, on a voyage with the ‘tunes. The Neptunes. Which it all started with.
Such a journey! Do you feel a connection to the role you played in ushering the new sounds that are now all over popular music?
I don’t think about it too much, but it’s interesting to see songs like “Milkshake” used for an actual milkshake commercial, you know, things like that. It’s a good thing. I’m happy about it.
Will you be playing any instruments tonight?
Chad: I’ll play samples from the DJ set, and some keyboard, and strum some guitar. I grew up playing saxophone, so I was always on stage as a youngster. Now to have our music performed live in front of millions of people, and they have tattoos inspired by our band, it’s great to just perform for them.
At this point, we went outside to take photos under the hot sun and I was left marveling that such a high profile entertainer could be so humble and chill.
THE CHANCE TO DISCOVER NEW VOICES
Discovering new voices is a joyful part of any festival, and seeing my LA friends the Vista Kicks stand out with their vintage rock melodies, groovy harmonies, and explosive stage presence was a highlight. Uproxx was hosting an Instagram Live set, and we invited the Vista Kicks to play a few songs off their new album “Twenty Something Nightmare.” I chatted a bit with singer Derek Thomas about the Vista Kicks’ KAABOO experience.
You just got back from your first European tour, correct?
Somebody once told me you can either be tired or you can be bored; we just got back yesterday from touring with the Kooks around the UK. To say the least, we’re exhausted, but the festival was worth it. We’re amazed at how many great acts are playing in just one weekend, and humbled by the opportunity.
Tell me more about how you’re releasing music, you’re making some unconventional moves.
On our last record, we released the first two singles straight to the public domain. We’re an independent band, we also write, record and produce our own music. We’ve gotten all kinds of feedback on the way we release music: our last two records were 15 and 18 songs. Most of our fans loved it and others would argue it’s too diverse or hard to categorize, or just too damn long. For us, it’s neither here nor there, we just try to make our songs honest and our presence genuine.
AND A CHANCE TO DANCE TO ALL THE BANDS YOU REALLY WANT TO SEE LIVE BUT WOULD NEVER ADMIT TO
I didn’t realize how much I needed to shake my booty to some of the funkiest hooks in music history until witnessing Earth, Wind and Fire play, “Let’s Groove,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “September,” and “Fantasy” live. Their coordinated dance moves are extraordinary, simple but effective because there’s nothing as titillating as watching a group of septuagenarians move the same way at the same time. They never stopped smiling! They did a full encore! I felt like we were on an Earth, Wind and Fire spaceship and they were the house band and we were never going to land. Bliss!
And then there was Jewel. “Jewel? I thought we were seeing Tool. Wait, she’s really good.” Overheard in the crowd, this statement encapsulates how bewildered many festival attendees were by Jewel the golden-haired banshee belting out one stunner after the next. Was I the only one aware that the princess of coffee shop poem-rock is also a classically trained opera singer? Have they never heard her yodel? Could I be the only one here who wrote poetry inspired by her lyrics as an angsty pre-teen?
In her set, Jewel told the story of a trip to Mexico when she was 18 working on her first album, how she played part in a drug smuggling bust with the local cops, how the misadventure informed her hit single “You Were Meant For Me.” See, she’s rock n’ roll! She looks so cool in a black jacket with silver stars and a skort accented with chainmail and white boots and I love her.
And then there was TLC! TLC was hugely important to my young self. The album CrazySexyCool was the crossroads of my childhood to adolescence. I had a bootleg cassette a friend recorded on her boom box because I wasn’t allowed to have it (they used swear words! they sang about sex!). I remember the main albums in my life at that time were Garth Brooks Greatest Hits and The Lion King soundtrack. I remember burying The Lion King behind my books and thinking “I’m too old for this; now I listen to TLC.” With my tiny allowance, I bought posters of T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli, but my mom made me take them down so I just moved them into my closet behind my clothes so I could go in there, listen to my bootleg cassette on my Walkman and peek at my heroes.
Watching TLC perform at Kaaboo (#RIPLeftEye) was a life dream, and I realized what I’d been connecting to so intensely as a kid. I was too young to know it, but subconsciously I was absorbing their messages of female empowerment. “Unpretty” “No Scrubs” “Waterfalls” … peer behind the catchy hooks and what they’re saying is “respect yourself, you’re more than your looks, be your own hero.” Their performance didn’t miss a beat, they were gracious and thanked the fans who’d been with them for 26 years.
SO… HOW DOES IT ALL COME TOGETHER?
As we left the festival the final night, a security guard shouted to the crowd “Thanks for being with us! We love you! Sorry Barbara Streisand didn’t perform.”
Huh? Who was that a shot at? Was there a punchline or was it just weird?
But this is KAABOO so… I guess it makes sense? Not only for the offbeat sense of humor, but also because the lineups are so consistently odd, so wonderfully diverse. It wasn’t out of the question that Barbara would perform next to, say, Gucci Mane. If you want a taste of KAABOO sooner than later, check out yet another awesomely mishmash-ed lineup with The Chainsmokers, Counting Crows, Bryan Adams, Shaggy, Salt-N-Pepa and more February 15 and 16, 2019 at KAABOO Cayman Islands.
Is KAABOO a little bit of an odd mix — what with the spa treatments, the art, the food, the bands from wide-ranging genres, and the comedy acts? Absolutely. But that eclectic is incredibly pleasant. And that’s a really good thing.