It’s sort of shocking to me to realize that with all the music festivals taking over Los Angeles and its surrounding areas, very few of them celebrate the history and heritage of LA in any meaningful way. I don’t mean to say that they do a poor job of recognizing LA artists or local establishments; I’ve eaten a Kogi taco or two while taking in performances from the likes of Angelenos like Nipsey Hussle, Dom Kennedy, Overdoz and Miguel. But LA is more than rap, more than rock, more than the beaches and Hollywood and Sunset and Silver Lake.
Go figure it would take an experimental cartoon band dreamed up by a British rock star to finally recognize the rich Mexican history built into the roots of this town, from the original pueblo to the Latino culture that permeates its buildings and streets. The Demon Dayz festival may have been the first major festival headlined by any artist as huge as the Gorillaz to nod to that culture, from its venue to its associated acts and even the non-musical entertainment. It was truly something special to see and I hope that the city sees more of it as often as possible.
The Pico Rivera Sports Arena where the festival took place isn’t a widely recognized venue for big music events like Staples Center or The Forum. It isn’t centrally located like Exposition Park and it isn’t anywhere near the Santa Monica Pier. The arena is primarily used for rodeos, boxing matches, and Latin entertainment, including lucha libre exhibitions, and in a way, that’s exactly what it was used for on Saturday as well. With the DJ-ing provided by Chulita Vinyl Club, an all-girl, all-vinyl collection spanning the Southwestern United States, the air was filled early on with the sounds of chicano oldies, Mexican punk, Tejano, and other genres that would be familiar to any longterm resident of LA’s most historical, but overlooked neighborhoods.
Mariachi bands greet guests at the entrances, tequila and Corona flowed freely from vendors’ booths, and Dia De La Muertos decorations livened the arena’s grounds. Las Cafeteras, the East LA fusion band that opened the festival sang rancheras and rock, celebrating the diversity of the LA music scene and its indigenous and transplant citizens alike. In the field stretching out from the main stage, a wrestling ring had been constructed and spectators stopped to take in the masked luchadores as they flipped and tumbled and riled the crowd. It was an LA festival that felt as LA as Olvera Street and the majority-Latino neighborhoods dotting the areas east of the Los Angeles River. It felt, at least to this kid from Compton, like home.
Of course, the primary draw was the headlining band, the two-dimensional surrealists from across the pond. I’ll admit that before Demon Dayz, I didn’t really have a sense of what Gorillaz’ fanbase looked like, but being in the crowd and seeing and hearing how passionately they stanned for 2-D, Noodle, and the gang, it was heartening to finally come face-to-face with the enthusiastic, diverse supporters of both Damon Albarn and his fanciful creations. Middle-aged, British white guys in Blur T-shirts mingled among hyperactive teens in 2-D cosplay, and I even spied several packs of much younger Gorillaz fans, adorned from head to toe in band merch beaming gap-toothed grins at their first festival experience. I couldn’t help but be a little jealous.
As for the big-name performers themselves, from Nigerian drummer Tony Allen to Virginian crooner DRAM to soul queen Erykah Badu, all were polished and gracious, delivering sets that felt all too short in the time allotted for the one-day fest, leaving fans hungry for more. But it was Damon Albarn and his animated band who impressed. This is what thirty years of performance experience looks and sounds like: A 50-year-old rocker in a plain black sweatshirt with complete mastery of his space and his audience. He doesn’t move around as much as some younger performers; he’s not prone to yelling much. He seems almost too cool, like your best friend’s dad who lets you drink when you visit. But there’s no denying that voice, or the effect it has, nor the fact that his performance band was practiced, polished, and pristine as they jammed their way through Gorillaz’ surprisingly expansive catalog — along with a Blur hit, “Song 2,” for the day ones.