California Roots Music and Arts Festival Review May 23-25, 2014 Image

by Contributed

The festival season is now officially overway, with summer’s unofficial opening weekend, Memorial Day, heralding the welcome of one of the newest — and fastest-rising — festivals. The California Roots Music and Arts Festival (“Cali-Roots”) recently roared through Monterey, CA, celebrating five years running strong.

The new generation of American reggae is clearly taking root, with the predominance of this festival’s bands and fans mostly in their 20s and 30s; and with Cali-Roots estimating attendances roughly double that of Califonia’s other preeminent classic roots reggae festivals. 

This year’s lineup kept stride with Cali’s previous years, featuring a healthy dose of upcoming artists in the likes of Stick Figure, Josh Heinrichs, Passafire, Kimie, Hirie, Tatanka, with seasoned new-school roots rockers like J Boog, Katchafire, The Green, The Expanders, Iration, and New Kingston holding up the dusky-hours evening sets. Rock edge and reggae met with mainstays 311, Pepper and Rebelution. Two of the largest US-bred bands on the world stage, Groundation and SOJA, brought their signature sounds and conscious message to The Massive assembled at Cali-Roots. Cross-cultural fusion from longtime cumbia reggae adherents B-Side Players helped set the stage for the up-and-coming Costa Rican-based Ojo de Buey; and latin met hip-hop with the unparalleled high-energy sounds of Los Rakas â€” and more of the boom-bap with Rakas’ East-Bay older brothers in beat, hip-hop luminaries Zion I. South-Korean-born Australian Saritah’s presence and representation further illustrate reggae’s far-reaching influence, as the roots form stretches into the 21st century.

Cali-Roots rounded out the 2014 offerings with some of the biggest names headlining reggae festivals today: Damian and Ziggy Marley (each on separate nights), Alborosie, and Steel Pulse. While in previous years, the Cali-Roots lineups have (with notable exceptions like Rootz Underground and Don Carlos) leaned heavily towards the Cali-grown bands, the growing addition of traditional roots icons bridges the gap to both bring older roots fans to the festival, and more importantly, to bring newer younger roots fans a live taste â€“ perhaps induction into â€“ the reggae that originally influenced so many of the bands present on this bill. The conviction, charge and tenure with which the experienced deliver is paralleled by none, and a lesson for all. (It was clear to see through the confident and heartfelt performances from all of the bands on the bill that the lesson is indeed being heeded.) Electricity was in the air for all of theclassic roots rockers!   

Just as reggae itself was originally amalgamating rhythms and influences from various genres (mento, rock, jazz, soul, R&B and more), the new generation continues to meld rock, hip-hop, surf, ska and punk influences into the mix. A birds’ eye view of Cali-Roots sees all of the bands mixing these elements in varying degrees; even some that are not in the traditional vein of the reggae sound, but still undeniably flying the banner for conscious music. Nahko and Medicine for the People had the crowd singing word-for-word, with topical songs dealing with our air, water and environment; songs about exploitation, rape and war â€” all sung with an intimacy, folk intensity, and urgency seldom heard these days. Nahko’s mostly acoustic instrumentation and undeniable social commentary fit perfectly to bring a strong conscious message to Cali-Roots’afternoon proceedings. What a surprise for this reggae fan, to be taken so fully by a sound that, yes, did have an undeniable skank to it, but was really like some alternative acoustic folk rockin’ hip-hop, if such a thing could be genre-fied. It further had me asking myself: should it be, could it be â€” any of this music â€” classified or pigeon-holed? 

It became increasingly clear to see through the course of the many bands over the weekend at Cali-Roots that the over-arching constant from the traditional roots reggae to the current sound is: the message of love. This was amplified through the vibes I was picking up, just cruising through the festival grounds, where most everybody was milling from stage to stage through the vendor rows with a mellow, contented, happy air. The party vibes were alive and well, while through and through, everyone I saw was level, respectful and friendly to a T. The safe atmosphere was family-friendly, as was evidenced by the great array of parents with kids of all ages enjoying the festivities together.

Vibrant art was everywhere, from the live stage painting to vendors selling artworks and roots clothing. Many artists graced the live stages, the art unfolding as the sets progressed. Artists included: Ana & Elizabeth Randolph, Al Scholl, Chris Morphis, Dela Cruz, Jimmy Ovadia, Taylor Reinhold, Selena Zontos, Kirk O’Hara (aka Paint Mouth), David Ornelas, Tara Nichole, and George Utrilla. Veteran visionary and roots artists Matt Jones and Lawrence “Mystic Lion” Hansen (who painted the“California Roots” stage backdrop) were mingling firsthand with the crowds as they sold their works.   
What festival would be complete without a smorgasbord of mouth-watering plates and bites to offer? Cali-Roots had more tasty selections than could be taken in over three and a half days. From vegan and traditional Jamaican food (including lightly fried fish and ackee!) to West African; from Louisianan gumbo to Indian samosas and naan wraps; from wood fired pizza and ice-cream cones, to Monterey Bay-caught calamari and locally grown artichoke hearts—and more! Through the years, I’ve had friends try to eat their way through festivals, and they couldn’t have done too badly at Cali-Roots!

It was exciting to see the growth of Cali-Roots, in this fifth year, the year that the festival expanded into the legendary music arena where Jimi Hendrix fried up his white Stratocaster in a blaze of glory at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Not only has Cali-Roots expanded within its Monterey venue, but promoters Jeff Monser and Dan Sheehan are also presenting a handful of one-night stands with several Cali-Roots bands; a“Back to the Roots” festival in Monterey featuring Don Carlos, Israel Vibration, Yellowman and more, on August 9th; as well as bringing Cali-Roots to East Coast fans with The Carolina Sessions, taking place in Wilmington, NC, September 13th and 14th. Also looking forward, I can only wonder how Cali-Roots fans would respond to the new generation of Jamaican “Reggae Revival” artists (such as Chronixx, Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal, Jah 9) joining the bill with the new generation of American artists.  

Cali-Roots could become a major conduit connecting the newer reggae acolytes to those proponents hailing directly from the reggae’s original musical and cultural homelands.

Finally, it is interesting to note that from the time we covered “Reggae Across the Pacific” * (a feature with a strong accent on Hawaiian bands, and a nod to the works of Dan Sheehan) in 2010, to the present, we have seen what was then a seed blossom into what is fast becoming the full-fledged movement now at hand — the movement perhaps best known now as Cali-Roots.

Review and photos by Anthony Postman, Dreditor, Reggae Festival Guide Magazine

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