The Observatory in Santa Ana is a bit of a mixed bag concerning their history with music festivals. While lineups are consistently solid, the venue itself often impedes on the potential of festivals like Beach Goth and Soulquarius — understaffed and underprepared for the possibility of problems including (but not limited to) rain and rowdy youngsters. The venue’s obvious efforts at streamlining their fests were evident during my time at When We Were Young (WWWY) — a fest mainly dedicated to the emo, punk and alternative acts of yesteryear (and Morrissey, can’t forget ol’ Mozz) — and the end result was a weekend of sweaty, if a little overcrowded, fun.
WWWY kicked off to a modest display of attendees to check out Culture Abuse at noon, but the larger crowds didn’t begin to form until a few hours later when emo giants The Get Up Kids hit the Heroes (main) stage. It’s only fitting considering the band has been influencing the scene since their debut album “Four Minute Mile,” so to see them welcome the fest’s first larger crowd added a layer of nostalgic authenticity. “Now that we’re old,” remarked guitarist Jim Suptic, playing on the fest title in the most dad-jokey way possible. Too true.
Joyce Manor’s Heroes stage performance followed up The Get Up Kids with a vibrant display of breakneck, pit-friendly punk rock that festivalgoers couldn’t get enough of. Their emotionally charged, Descendents-tinged lyrics were echoed in passionate cries by hoards of sweating fans singing along to every lyric as they pushed and shoved into one another. My pudgy body sore and once-perky voice dying, I couldn’t have asked for a better set from the Torrance natives.
Around this time came lunch (a little late but hey, when in Rome) for a plethora of those in attendance; selections were limited to meals excluding meat “out of respect to Morrissey and his long-standing activism for animal rights.“ The Smiths frontman’s staunch refusal to perform during sets where he can smell animal meat is nothing new, but many were met with shock upon discovering the first day of the festival would withhold meat products to honor his ideology. Zulma Arzate, a Santa Ana resident who attended WWWY, “(was) glad they were thoughtful enough to consider Morrissey’s activism.” That being said, she didn’t appreciate “the overpriced food choices” and saw it “in The Observatory’s favor to actually include a larger menu” that catered to more palates. Another attendee, Sandra Tempraseuth contrarily saw it “a bit pretentious” of Morrissey to expect everyone to “manipulate their food items to cater in his favor.”
Across the grounds at the Dancing In The Streets stage were Senses Fail, a post-hardcore act that gave me flashbacks of my middle school days, borrowing my mom’s flat iron straightener to give my thick curly hair the tried and true emo do-over. Great times! Interesting to see the contrast between that band (whose final song drew a hell of a pit) and Homeshake whose presence alone on the festival’s lineup stuck out like a sore thumb. The former Mac Demarco guitarist is galaxies apart from the genres that dominated the festival so the toned down geniality in Pete Sagar’s set was a much appreciated change of pace. If only his homie hadn’t been a sadist and amped his bass up to an ear-numbing high. I’ve never wanted to wear ear plugs more badly than during that Homeshake set.
7 p.m.: Cage the Elephant is set to play in 15 minutes but I just want to see AFI. I don’t mind waiting, it’s AFI we’re talking about here. Never been much of a Cage the Elephant fan but their set was impressively fun — the crowd was moving in numbers I hadn’t seen prior to their set, and despite the pushing and shoving that migrated their way like radiation waves from the center of the pit to my peripheral viewpoint, I couldn’t help myself from admiring the band. Frontman Matt Shultz was a wildman on stage and I loved every minute of his high-octane performance.
Like a bat out of hell came AFI who, alongside Descendents, Joyce Manor, Mount Eerie and Turnstile sold me on the idea of giving Observatory festivals another chance; opening with “Sing the Sorrow” singles “Girl’s Not Grey,” followed by “The Leaving Song Pt. II,” the band made me completely ignore the massive headache I had (take note, folks: Take care of yourself when at fests, don’t starve yourself and stay hydrated). Davey Havok’s voice has notably gone through ample changes since their 1993 debut (a surgery between “Sing the Sorrow” and “Decemberunderground” being a factor, too), evident in his delivery of the screamed vocals on songs like hit single, “Miss Murder” and his inability to hit high notes on “Silver and Cold.” That said, Havok is still a terrific frontman and the band’s hour-long set was first-rate.
To no surprise, The Observatory’s limited space made catching Morrissey even remotely close up an act of frustration. Luckily, I’ve seen him before so I hung back and caught his set from a distance. It also didn’t shock anyone to see Mozz take a stance on Emperor Trump, his entourage all wearing blue tees with “Fuck Trump” on them. But I’ll speak for the entirety of the fest-goers when I say hearing him open up with The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” was a wonderful surprise that genuinely choked me up I was so happy. The 57-year-old was elegant as always even in his old age, with highlights including “Suedehead” and an updated rendition of The Smiths’ “Shoplifters of the World Unite.” “Be good to yourself, be good to your mothers, be good to animals and God bless you” were the words that punctuated his hour-long set and the first night of the festival.
The Buttertones commenced Day Two of WWWY at the Dancing in the Street stage at 11:45 a.m. to a more sizeable and lively crowd than the day prior. Sunflower Bean took over the Heroes stage 30 minutes later. I hope admitting that I was at home recovering from the night prior doesn’t relinquish my legitimacy as a music writer, but word of mouth says they ruled. Sorry, but if Morrissey tells me to take care of myself then that’s what I’m doing.
When I did inevitably arrive one song into Pinback’s 1:15 p.m Heroes stage set, the band played “Penelope,” their mournful ode to the eponymous pet fish as I ran like a living, breathing Coachella advertisement: Holding my partner’s hand, phone in the other, snapchatting my favorite tune as we ran to the front of the stage. While the three-piece indie group wasn’t the most anticipated show of the day, attracting a low number to the main stage, their performance was understatedly wondrous.
Then there was Dr. Dog, whose filling of the Heroes stage with viewers mirrored the previous day’s influx of people only there for the headliners. Unfortunately, this is when I encountered my first major upset with the festival, which was the unannounced switching of Mount Eerie’s set from 3:15 p.m. to 2 p.m. Maybe unannounced isn’t the right word since the correct time was on the mobile phone app, but after firsthand experience with the app’s futility, I abandoned any pretense of using it to my advantage. Imagine my surprise: Leaving Dr. Dog’s set 15 minutes early to get front row for Mount Eerie, holding my partner tight in anticipation of the cascade of tears I just know I will shed witnessing Phil Elverum perform songs from his latest album, “A Crow Looked at Me,” a colossally devastating album literally about nothing but death, only to have Orange County native punk band The Stitches open a pit up within seconds of their first song. Maybe that’s the world’s way of telling me I wasn’t meant to cry that day.
I figured since I couldn’t catch Mount Eerie then the time overlap between Turnstile meant nothing anymore; racing to the Dancing in the Streets stage I frantically caught the hardcore group’s performance only a few minutes late. Learning from my previous encounter with the band live, I entered the pit cautious of people twice my size and batty windmillers who could accidentally knock me out. Luckily, the worst thing that happened was a momentary loss of my precious glasses — the rest was pure kinetic catharsis. Turnstile, pardon my language, tore the fucking place apart with songs like “7,” “Keep it Moving” and “Bleach Temple,” the crowd pitting like no tomorrow.
Taking note of my errors the previous day, I coughed out a whopping $7 for a burger I shouldn’t have spent more than $3 on and navigated my way to the front of the Heroes stage where I remained for the entirety of the day. Silversun Pickups saw the crowd growing in number to witness the dream pop ensemble play their hits “Panic Switch” and closing track “Lazy Eye,” among a handful of deep cuts. Next up were skate punk hotshots FIDLAR who like always had a hectic roster of songs, each of which made the crowd go absolutely nuts — notable songs including “Cheap Beer” and “40oz. On Repeat.” If there is anything to be learned during a FIDLAR set (this being my third time) it’s that security guards — regardless of one’s personal opinions on them — are lifesavers when it comes to dealing with crowd surfers.
As the night creeped in, distinguished emo musicians Taking Back Sunday stole the stage with genre classics “You’re So Last Summer” and “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team).” Frontman Adam Lazzara’s charisma was hard to ignore, his humorous anecdotes and southern inflection peppering down time between tracks. The highlight of the set was Lazzara’s wildcard stunt where he climbed the stage’s rafter to sing the final verse of their hit single “MakeDamnSure.” Hanging upside down, his antic was an exhilarating if frightening way to set the grounds for punk legends Descendents.
For those unfamiliar with Descendents’ legacy on the music genre, note that their music shaped the musical landscape of rock today, taking large part in creating pop punk and emo rock as it exists today. Lead singer Milo Aukerman graced the stage exactly how I would imagine the nerdy father of two and former research scientist who holds a doctorate degree from UC San Diego, quipping, “I always wanted to play the observatory but this isn’t quite, isn’t quite the view …” before opening up with “Everything Sucks.” It’s funny, seeing a band whose lyrical material very frequently dealt with the pains of growing up now in their old age; the irony meter was at an all time high during their live renditions of “When I Get Old” and “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.” I could rave about their performance much longer but I’ll let the fact that my voice was dead for three consecutive days after speak for itself — one of the best live performances I’ve ever experienced. UCR student Alyssa Yan stated “catching my favorite punk band was surreal,” noting, “singing along to their intense yet emotionally packed lyrics was the highlight of my weekend.”
An overall success, WWWY offered nostalgia ad nauseum, featuring musical legends like Morrissey and Descendents who helped to make the event unforgettable for those in attendance. If The Observatory promises further festivals to run as smoothly as this one, then I guess we can all forgive the hitches their previous ones had.