Cali Roots >> This past weekend, the Monterey County Fairgrounds hosted the 6th annual California Roots Music & Arts Festival.
Cali Roots, in their own words, is more than a festival; it’s a movement with the community for positive change. Now after having attended for a second year, I can honestly, truly and deeply say that that comes through in everything they do, from when they open the gates until the last headliner encore on Sunday night. The 3-day festival this year boasted a total of 39 bands and artists across three stages. The lineup for 2015 saw the introduction of more hip hop with Cypress Hill, The Roots and Dilated Peoples. They also stayed true to their core fan base with repeat headliners SOJA, Slightly Stoopid and reggae royalty Steel Pulse. There was something for everyone to see and plenty of surprises along the way.
[related: Cali Roots 2014]
Music can be a catalyst for change, but first that fire needs to be sparked, and who better to do it and kick off the weekend Friday morning than up and coming smoke show, Leilani Wolfgramm. She definitely had her Starbuck's and had more energy than I did for the first set but by the end had me right there with her. Joined on stage by her producer and guest drummer, E.N. Young of Tribal Seeds, she danced and shook it to powerful vocals that brought to mind images of a reggae Janis Joplin. The edge to her voice and music was powerful and brought life to her hits ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Herbivore’ which had her and the all too eager crowd lighting up nature's cure right along with her. Definitely a strong presence that will no doubt be returning to Cali Roots on bigger stage and a later time slot.
Friday was a full afternoon with the surprise stars of last year's festival Nahko and Medicine for the People stepping up to the main stage at 2:30p. After such a moving performance last year that kept everyone talking, the move was a surprise to no one and they did not disappoint. The Bowl was packed earlier than I have ever seen it - and that's not a play on words, The Bowl is just the name of the main stage, as coincidental as it might be. Anyway, back to the music! Having seen them play multiples times before, this was the longest set I'd been privileged to see at about 70 minutes. As many of their message-filled ballads power on for sometimes over seven minutes, they seemed less rushed and more free than past performances. They covered the importance of conservation of resources, political conflict and their ever permeating message of love and care of one another. Sounds deep, right? It is but the hour flew buy singing and rocking along with the positivity. Guest vocals by personal favorite Hirie and Blue King Brown frontwoman Natalie Pa‘apa’a added a woman's touch, return of bassist Dustin Thomas, and cover's of 'California Love' and a Bob Marley medley rounded out the set. Larger stage than last year, same result, and all in attendance were all a part of something special.
SOJA headlined and wrapped up Friday with a strong, to very strong performance. As previous headliners the immediately took control of the stage and the crowd. Having almost a full year under their belts with their 2014 album release Amid the Noise and Haste, the majority of songs were focused on their newer music but the crowd didn't seem to mind or miss a beat. Social conscience themes in line with Nahko earlier in the day carried through each song and enlightened the masses while entertaining them simultaneously. Their performance of ‘Promises and Pills’ which is a commentary on our treatment of soldiers returning from the middle east, was taken up a notch as guest vocalist Alfred the MC had gone rogue and rapped the hardest/angriest verses of the song in the stadium seating directly next to us to the right of the stage to our surprises and everyone else's. The band wrapped up with a few oldies and was brought back to mellow and positive vibes as the band killed it with their single ‘Easier’ as surprise guest J-Boog joined on stage on brought the house down. Although not performing on stage this year J-Boog was a noticeable figure all weekend just hanging out with other artists, supporting his buddies and just enjoying the music. Apparently artists, fans, and hell even writers too, all love J-Boog and were so pumped to have him on end to cap off an excellent performance as SOJA shut down the main stage and sent everyone home feeling irie and content at the end of day 1.
Day 2 was supposed to be the mellow day with already a solid day in the books and a full slate on tap for Sunday, I personally wasn't expecting a whole lot from the Saturday lineup..and then it went and TOTALLY REDEEEMED ITSELF!
Collie Buddz was first up on my schedule and he was lined up for the main stage in the bowl. Having only seen him live one time prior this made me nervous. He had the main stage at Outside Lands in 2011 and was lost among the hipsters and wandering first timers trying to figure out who was on the festivals premiere stage. Not the case at Cali Roots VI. Like Vince Vaughn says in Swingers, Collie Buddz is all growns up and he’s all growns up and he’s all growns up. The young man I saw try and capture an audience in San Francisco five years ago, stormed upon the stage in camouflage head to toe and giving zero fucks with the masses in the palm of his hand. Bringing his unique island blend of hip hop and reggae he had hands in the air, feet jumping, and panties dropping. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the camo thing zero percent, but if you handle a mic with that much confidence and swag there's no reason it won't work. With limited studio releases since his self titled album in 2007, featuring hits ‘Blind To You’ and ‘Come Around’, clearly Collie Buddz has mastered his craft on tour performing live. His performance had me energized for the rest of the day and even more excited for the forthcoming album Prescription later this year.
As I mentioned prior, I wasn’t totally geeked up on Saturday’s lineup, but this gave us some down time to actually eat and explore the vendors and artists the festival has to offer. Granted, a lot of the art I saw was giant pot leaves or weed puns on a cheap tee-shirt and not my jam, but we also saw plenty of wildly creative painters and sculptors with their craft on display. Just because I didn’t purchase anything doesn’t mean I wasn’t impressed. It takes a lot of courage to put anything you create out there and for that I applaud all participants. Was also nice to see that Rastafarian colors, themes and influences can take more shapes and sizes than a Bob Marley portrait in red, yellow and green and was cool to explore another side of the festival.
It was during our wandering around that we might’ve found the surprise set and best up and comer of the entire weekend, The Ethan Tucker Band. You’re welcome. Go look him up and buy tickets for when he comes to a town near you. Also do your Spotify a favor and mix him in there as well. Oh you need more? Fine, I’ll explain. First off, he wasn't reggae per say. Picture some sort of mix between Trevor Hall, Ben Harper, and Michael Franti. His bluesy, folksy, rockin' vibes with a dash of reggae was a breath of fresh air to my ears and apparently everyone else's as the performance on the small side stage grew exponentially with each passing song. One of those people was the aforementioned Michael Franti, who joined Mr. Tucker on stage mid-set to play their collaboration, ‘Crazy Tonight’ off of the album, ‘Misunderstood’ which the Ethan Tucker Band just dropped this month. Please don’t take my word for it though. His energy, stage presence, and audience engagement won’t come across on your MacBook. Go see him perform and I can guarantee you’ll some how end up singing along to all his songs that you’re just hearing for the first time like everyone who saw him Saturday afternoon.
You want more Michael Franti? Ya I didn’t expect to hear those words out of my mouth either and then it happened. More out of scheduling than anything else we next found ourselves at the original Cali Roots Stage for his set. This is mid size stage and my favorite of the 3 stages. It is surrounded by picturesque cypress trees, holds the perfect size crowd, and a just had certain magic to it especially at night. The stage was set for magic Saturday night with fog rolling in against a stunning lighting job. Not going to lie the Sierra Nevada’s and second hand fog played their part too, but Michael Franti took advantage and delivered. He had way more songs that it turned out I knew that I thought oh hey that’s who sings this! Bet if you listen to him, you’ll be in same boat. Ya, they might more from his days focused on Spearhead or from the Flipper soundtrack but you’ll know them. Somehow 25+ identical beach balls all started bopping around during ‘Say Hey [I Love You]’, and if that visual to that song doesn't get you happy, it's too late. You’re dead inside. Also for a man of just shy of 50 years old and probably 6-foot-5 he hopped around on top of speakers and engaged the crowd at every possible opportunity. Had you told me at the beginning of the day I’d be dancing around to Michael Franti I’d have never believed it but just another treat experiencing a festival and live music in general can give you.
The Roots closed out day 2 as the headliner back in The Bowl. I stayed open minded hoping they weren't hand picked to lead the festivals main stage because they had Roots in their name and so did the festival but I guess we may never know. This is by no means a condemnation of The Roots. I saw The Roots open for Common back in 2003, loved the show and think they’re wildly talented. Just not sure they were the right shaped peg to try to pound in to The Bowl as a headliner. They put on a great show but seemed to be my sentiments were shared by a lackluster crowd. Live and learn and you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take and what not but in this writer’s humble opinion rather than trying to expand a fan base for both an artist and a festival they should stick to their Cali Roots.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! The final day of Cali Roots had an absolutely loaded lineup with almost no down time between big names, going out with a bang just like any proper festival should. The schedule included G-Love & Special Sauce, Common Kings, Cypress Hill, Iration and more. That would be a hell of a day by itself but there's more! Jamming on the main stage Sunday were also Tribal Seeds and Slightly Stoopid, two bands which we were lucky enough to interview over the weekend!
We actually got to sit down with E.N. Young of Tribal Seeds on Friday after he sat in on drums for Leilani Wolfgramm whose album he also produced. Producer and drummer, impressive right? Not even half of it. He's not even the drummer for Tribal Seeds he's their kick-ass keyboardist. Drumming he picked up when he was 12 after a broken arm. And on top of producing he also runs an entire studio, Imperial Sound Studio in San Diego. Oh did I mention budding solo career yet? On top of Tribal Seed's full hour main stage performance he took his solo project to the original stage where he again played keys and starred on lead vocals. How he managed to find time to hang out with us is beyond me and much appreciated. He couldn't have been more chill, open and down to earth. We were just a couple of laid back dudes talking music, which is why both of his performances blew me away so much on Sunday. The mild mannered, dread-headed, multifaceted entrepreneur and family man was a wild man on stage. Not sure I have ever seen that much energy and presence from a keyboardist before, even leaving the stage during Tribal Seeds set to run into the crowd playing his melodica [Google it, I had to]. I liked Tribal Seeds before this weekend but after meeting E.N. and seeing his performances I am an even bigger fan and look forward to following the band and his solo career as they both will no doubt continue to sky upward.
Slightly Stoopid closed out day 3 and the festival on a high note. Pun intended for the most part. These Ocean Beach standouts are celebrating their 20th year if you can believe that ish! Before closing down Cali Roots Sunday night we were lucky enough to interview drummer Ryan Moran, or Rymo to you Stoopid heads out there. For a band that in the past has had the occasional reputation for partying and imbibing in the scene a little too hard he couldn't have been more on point, engaging and insightful. He seemed actually excited to talk to us and we got so caught up talking that we went well over our allotted time. We talked about the roots of the band growing out of punk influences and naturally Sublime and similar bands. We talked about how far not only Slightly Stoopid but the entire genre and reggae in general have grown so much especially in just the past few years as evident by the California Roots Festival. We also asked him about their new album Meanwhile Back at the Lab which comes out JUN-30. Rymo said it did have some more elements of funk, and said that a lot of development of the new album came from fans feedback from live shows. He also noted that over the years they've put together enough old school punk for an entire album and lead us to believe it might see the light of day in the near future. As for the Slightly Stoopid performance later that night, it was clear why they had the honor of headlining the final set of the weekend. They are pros, delivering their core fans the classic beachy, reggae rock vibes everyone's come to love. They mixed in a couple songs from the new album, actually opening the show with a song called ‘Dabbington’. Mixing in a few covers and a who's who list of guest performers including reggae legend Don Carlos, Cypress Hill, Fishbone, Ethan Tucker, and of course the never tiring E.N. Young! It was the epitome of what one wants in a headlining performance when coming to Cali Roots and one hell of a way to end the weekend.
Wow, what a weekend! Cali Roots again delivered 3 days of amazing music, jamming the classic tunes we love, and introducing us to our future favorites. It truly is a special weekend and is more than a festival, it's an experience. What makes that experience special is the people, and I mean all the people; fans, artists, vendors, artists, staff and security. The vibe is unlike any other festival you've probably ever been too. I didn't see one fight or anyone passed out or puking. Granted a few people might've had one too many bites of a brownie but if that was our world's bigger problem we'd be better off. Everyone we met on every level was so friendly, open-minded, helpful and genuine. So thank you Cali Roots for an amazing time and experience. We can only hope to pay it forward and hopefully see you for more Memorial Day memories next year. Also, if you made it to the end of this entire article, Jah Bless.