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Modest Mouse, Passion Pit, MGMT, Beach House and Other Artists Headline the First Annual ‘First City Festival’ in Monterey

first-city-groundsTens of thousands of festival goers were treated to an impressive list of indie and alternative rock artists and bands this past weekend at the first annual First City Festival in Monterey, California. The fest, featuring headliners like Modest Mouse, Washed Out, Passion Pit, MGMT, Beach House, Purity Ring, among others, drew large crowds each day of the two-day music festival held in the idyllic location of the Monterey Fairgrounds, where large grassy open spaces are shaded by groves of beautiful cypress trees and graced by fresh ocean air from the nearby Monterey Bay. It’s a perfect location for a mini-festival. In addition to three stages, there was also a vaudeville stage that drew crowds throughout the course of the festival. Plus, there were food and drink vendors, booths, charging stations, and even games and rides available at the adjoining carnival grounds.

Listen to the full playlist of songs from Day One artists via Spotify

Indie rock legends Modest Mouse closed the festival with a one and half hour set on Sunday night that included a bunch of their newer material mixed with some of their older, and more well-known, material, including highlighted tracks from the band’s mesmerizing 2000 album, The Moon and Antarctica. The band performed excellent live renditions of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and “I Came As A Rat.” They also crunched out classic indie rock songs like “Dramamine” (which we included on our First City Spotify playlists) and “Float On.”

While the band played brilliantly through old and new material, things didn’t go so well when Mouse’s vocalist and guitarist Issac Brock tried to instruct the crowd to hold their breath for four seconds. When that odd request failed, Brock made even a stranger one, asking the crowd instead to boo loudly and spit on each other. Thankfully, that failed as well. That confused people, but the band’s set was so good that it didn’t matter one bit at the end of their set. Modest Mouse was the perfect band to close out a spectacular weekend featuring some of the biggest artists of indie music, from the pioneers, like Modest Mouse, to artists that have become so popular that they’re now pretty much mainstream, like Passion Pit and MGMT.

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Prior to Modest Mouse, who performed at the main Redwood stage, was a performance on the Cypress stage (located at the opposite end of the grounds) by Purity Ring. We opted to juggle sets from Deerhunter, who performed a remarkably buzzy set with excellent jams (perhaps to honor the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival at the same location, a festival that was the first major and heavily promoted rock festival in the United States) that blazed through the sky like the changing light and colors of the setting sun. Deerhunter were one of our favorite sets of the day.

In order to catch all of Deerhunter’s set, a festival goer who was not staying for the set up and performance of Purity Ring, had no choice but to miss some of Neko Case’s set. Case was essentially the opening artist for Modest Mouse, put on a predictably tight performance, selecting a range of songs from the band’s discography.

Earlier on Day Two, was a full afternoon’s worth of talented artists, including Toro Y Moi, Lucero, Devendra Banhart, Dr. Dog, Capital Cities, Antlers, The Dodos, Generationals, Avery Tare’s Slasher Ficks, Akron/Family, Seventeen Evergreen, Bleached, among others. That’s the kind of line-up we’re used to seeing at the bigger, already established and popular festivals like Coachella, ACL and Bonaroo.

Listen to more Day Two artists via IRC’s Spotify playlist

With all of those terrific bands performing one after another all afternoon, it’s hard to totally comprehend that the day’s headliners, which always draw the largest crowds, had yet to perform. As the sun began to dip little by little in the other direction, the number of Passion Pit and MGMT hipsters were increasing by the boat loads. It’s easy to conclude that many came to the festival just for one or two artists. And while the success of Passion Pit and MGMT grew out of the indie underground buzz, they are now clearly more mainstream than just a popular indie buzz band.

For example, in just the first few notes MGMT played of their popular song “Time to Pretend,” the enormous crowd roared with overwhelming approval as big crowds periodically do in the first few notes of wildly popular song. Again, a consistent theme we noticed about First City, the sound is amazing as far as outdoor festivals go. While MGMT delivered a good show, it wasn’t their best as one writer, Jody Amable, reported for a Bay Area blog called Bay Bridged. She wrote that MGMT: “rolled out the same old show they’ve been doing for years, featuring a whole lot of trippy visuals in retina-melting shades of neon to go with their brand of feathers-and-face-paint electro pop,” and while psychedelic visuals are a ‘time honored tradition’ for rock that originated in the Bay Area to begin with (and MGMT is a San Francisco band), the visuals were “starting to upstage them [MGMT] a little bit.” It’s true that the visuals aspect of the set was old hat, but the main annoyance was the temporary blinding effect and disorientation caused by overly contrasted and brightened visuals that flashed on and off repeatedly.

If you were trying to take photos from a few rows or more from the stage with a phone camera, chances are you got little else but big, blinding splashes of neon colors across the picture. Maybe that’s why they did it. Maybe it’s a secret government brainwashing mechanism. No, but seriously, tone it down guys. Or maybe it goes so well with MGMT’s hipster image and fan base that it’s purposely made to be way over the top.

By the time the closing act for Day One, Passion Pit, came on, the arena was packed with tens of thousands of people crammed into the fairground’s dusty Redwood stage area (which is built more for rodeos than music concerts). Passion Pit topped off the first day of what was an amazing afternoon and evening (11 hours total) of music. The band played with the quality of performance one would expect from such an accomplished band that started out DIY, went indie and are now admired by millions of young people around the world.

First City’s inaugural would have been solid even if all of the artists scheduled for Day One were spread out over two days. Yet, there was still another blockbuster day of performances from excellent bands still to come.

As we noticed all weekend, the sound at First City was spectacular, and there are likely a number of variables for that – one of course being the size of the grounds and the stage areas – relatively small compared to bigger festivals with a line-up the caliber of First City’s. Often times, a new festival can’t get dozens of popular indie bands booked for a variety of reasons. There are few debut music festivals that have a powerful lineup like First City did. We’re already curious about what they have in the works right now for 2014. First City is also a music festival that was clearly designed for indie rock fans. However, the festival’s name is attributed to the fact that Monterey was the first capital of California.

In the few reviews of the festival, there is not much emphasis placed on the sound quality. Sure, there is plenty of cred to the sound engineers – that’s a given. But the relatively small area, compared to Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park, keeps the sound contained and the number of trees and mostly wooden structures in and around the fair grounds absolutely help to provide a better, fuller sound inside that space. Now we can see part of the reason why Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Janis Joplin all became famous directly as a result of their performances at Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967. The sound, even with the little sound quality technology that existed at the time, must have been incredible.

To that point, there is the once best-selling official soundtrack from Monterey Pop as well as the film by the same name. See our preview of First City that includes an embedded video of rare concert bonus footage that was not released on the official film (no idea who posted it, but YouTube could remove it at anytime).

While there is some tweaking to do here and there, for the debut of a new festival, the organizers, Golden Voice, did a spectacular job, and they also brought a major rock festival back to the place where they were born nearly a half century ago. Plus, it’s simply a terrific spot to have a music festival for the ambience, ease of parking, fresh ocean air, moderate temps, and definitely for the acoustics. During his Father John Misty set, Tillman even commented to the crowd that there was something wrong with anyone who didn’t think it was an ideal place for a music festival.

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The Monterey Fairgrounds has been home to the world famous Monterey Jazz Festival for the past 55 years. In fact, from September 20th to September 22nd, three weeks from now, the Monterey Jazz Festival will celebrate is 56th year, further solidifying its place in music history as one of the world’s oldest and continuously running music festivals.

First City will most certainly return next year based on the feedback we’ve been hearing, and a number of artists who openly praised the festival to the audience during their sets. Although the festival did not sell out of tickets by the time the gates opened on Saturday at 11 am., the crowds we saw, particularly at the Redwood stage for the top headliners, certainly seemed to be in the tens of thousands. Monterey Pop had 55,000 in attendance. From looking at the crowds in different locations throughout the two days, we’d say it was closer to 55,000 than not. The most striking similarity we could see to Monterey Pop 46 years ago was the attire. As was the case at Outside Lands just a few weeks ago, there were thousands of teenage girls and young adult women dressed in hippie-style attire, from dresses and flowery head bands to ripped jeans and colorful blouses and even polyester. For anyone who has seen many images over the years of the attire of the real hippies from the actual original time period, seeing all the hipsters as if they walked off a 1969 photograph, was trippy, mostly because it was so right on, right down to the straight, long hair and minimal facial make up.

If you’re already thinking about festivals to attend next summer in California, follow news during the coming winter and spring about First City via their mailing list. Plus, if you’ve never been to the San Francisco Bay Area (Monterey is part of the central coast region, some 110 miles south of San Francisco), and you have the ability to do so, it’s strongly recommended to spend a few extra days to see San Francisco and other amazing places in the Bay Area and central coast, including Monterey’s famous Aquarium, the 17 Mile Drive, the redwoods, and the Golden Gate Bridge, to name a few. If luck has it, the second annual First City will occur the weekend following, or proceeding, San Francisco’s hugely popular Outside Lands Festival. That’ll make it possible for visitors to California, who also love music festivals, to attend both fests. Bundling for vacations is always a good idea, and if this year is any indication, attending First City in 2014 should be high on the list for indie rock fans.

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