Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends, brothers and sisters, we are finally back. After a two year-too long forced hiatus, the biggest festival in American reggae, Cali Roots, returned to the Monterey Fairgrounds for their eleventh and biggest year yet. To make up for lost time, a fourth day was added to the festivities as the long Memorial Day weekend extended to Thursday. Over the days, the artists gave almost superhuman performances to a crowd that showed just as much fortitude in supporting each artist like it was the first and last show they would ever go to. Before the first band took the stage, festival organizer and modern Reggae’s surrogate father, Dan Sheehan, took the microphone to say a few words. “It’s been a wild ass two years.” He exclaimed. Over the next four days, Monterey would show just how much it had missed its beloved festival and not let one minute go by without making this known.
When it came time for Fortunate Youth to take the Bowl stage, frontman Dan Kelly sauntered onstage shoeless, sporting his usual flannel and fedora aesthetic, ceremoniously smoking a joint and holding a beer. “So many beautiful faces out there, good to see ya. Cali Roots, how we feeling?” He projected as the band began their set with “Peace Love and Unity.” The band’s Hermosa Beach legacy manifested through Kelly’s vocals, while calming in their demeanor, still retained the earthy and screaming quality consistent with the punk influence of so many of the punk bands to come out of Los Angeles’ South Bay. Their setlist, which was flushed with hits, played almost every fan-favorite from “Pass the Herb” to “Good Times (Roll On)” to “So Rebel,” had only one notable omission, “Sweet Love,” a single from their debut album, which the band retired last year after Dan Kelly proposed to his now fiance during the piece a year prior. The set ended with the crowd as energized as they were at the beginning of the piece as they sang along to “Burn One” eager to shout “We gonna roll one up, roll one up” as many times as they could.
An act very familiar to the Cali Roots family, Jesse Royal has seen his career grow with the festival over the last several years. From his early days with the festival many fans will recall his energetic sets on the pop-up stage years ago, he has developed into one of the biggest acts out of Jamaica and drew an immense crowd to his performance on the Cali Roots stage. Embracing his success in America, he walked onstage wearing a custom camo Los Angeles Dodgers cap, the word “Royal” embroidered on the right-hand side. He began his set with a recent hit, “High Tide or Low,” calmly dancing onstage to a heavy bass beat and sold the crowd on the lyrics “High tide or low, I’ll never let Jah go.” A set that showcased his evolution as an artist and focused on his newer hits, he did take the time to turn back the clock late in his set and played one of the hits from his earlier days “Modern Day Judas.” He ended his performance with an homage to the collaborative “Cali Roots Riddim” album and closed with his contribution to the record “Ooh La La.”
For so many of us who make the pilgrimage to Monterey every Memorial Day weekend, Cali Roots feels like a religious experience, but there was one moment that made this sentiment feel quite literal late in the festival’s inaugural day. Members of the Esselen Native American Tribe came to the Bowl stage as the sun began to set to hold the festival’s opening ceremonies and to bless the grounds. A service which consisted of speeches, music, and prayer, they set a somber and reflective tone for the rest of the weekend. In attendance, Mayor emeritus Mary Ann Carbone, proud member of the Esselen tribe, joined in the service, her presence a gleaming reminder of the strong leadership within the community.
Reggae royalty Stephen Marley closed out the Cali Roots stage for the night. Walking up onstage to perform in front of a gold lion head, Stephen Marley took center stage to close out the first day on the Cali Roots stage, loudly proclaiming “Family, what’s good?” As he started his set off with the Bob Marley cover “Punky Reggae Party.” His set contained a good mix of his own songs and pieces from his family’s reporour, covering other songs from his father including “Three Little Birds,” “Get up, Stand Up,” and “Jamming” while still performing many of his originals such as “Iron Bars,” “Break Us Apart,” and “Hey Baby.” The energy for the majority of the show was mellow, but focused. He ended with a passionate and empowering claim, “We have to protect our children. No politician, no government can protect our children. We have to protect our children.” before ending his set with an acoustic cover of his father’s anthem “Babylon System.”
Ending the day at the Bowl stage, headliners Dirty Heads performed their blend of reggae and hip hop behind heavy bass and ominously dark and heavy lights. Opening with their loud and danceable single that should have been the anthem of the 2020 summer, “Bum Bum” got the audiences’ hands up in the air from the first note. They progressively brought the tempo down throughout their next few songs “Burn Slow,” “Mad At It,” and “My Sweet Summer” before playing the single as close to a true ballad as they will ever write “All I need.” “What a fucking vibe” singer Jared Watson at one point proclaimed in an emotional moment. “We played the first Cali Roots ever on the little stage of the grass right there for like 500 people, maybe a thousand people, and to watch it grow… Thank you.” Before playing an unreleased song from their upcoming album with the help of Common Kings frontman, Junior King, the other members of Common Kings dancing on stage behind him. A set that played almost every one of their hits from “Medusa” to “Sloth’s Revenge” and even “Oxygen,” the band ended on a fitting note with “Vacation.” The lyrics “I'm on vacation every single day ‘cause I love my occupation” an understatement when held up to how much fun the band members clearly had on stage every night. As the masses left the fairgrounds, the seal was cracked and not a person could help but feel excited for the next three days of Cali Roots left to come.