Cali Roots Veterans Pepper has been known to call the California Roots Music & Arts Festival the “Super Bowl” of the genre, and over the last decade, it has proven time and time again that it represents the apex of what reggae can be in America. It has passed every festival that inspired it inspired it by countless lengths in virtually every way. Few reggae staples have played its stages, fewer by their own choice as the waiting list grows exponentially with every year, on Memorial Day weekend the fog lays low throughout the Monterey Bay in anticipation of this event.
The culture has evolved in unexplainable and undeniably ways as it has snowballed in popularity, reaching a more popular and ever-expanding demographic that is debatably reaching its critical mass within its current parameters. This year’s festivities combined, more than ever, the roots of its origins with the feel of a modern-day music festival as it stayed true to its genre of inspiration with some acts that drew a mainstream appeal beyond the initial reggae niche.
The suspense built outside the Monterey fairgrounds as the gates were held for a half hour later than expected while the finishing touches were put on the festival’s ambiance. Each band more than lived up to the hype as day one proved to be a laid-back introduction to the weekend.
For Peace Band opened the festival with enthusiasm. The young musicians took great pleasure in playing their opening set, and all clearly noticed when a fan placed a flag from their native country of Guam on the barricade in recognition of their heritage. For Peace Band was joined onstage by some Cali Roots staples, including a vocal cameo by Iya Terra’s Nathan Feinstein, and an onstage smoke featuring the out courtesy of Cali Roots’ favorite social media influencer, @_WeShouldSmoke who took the invitation an opportunity to light his first burrito sized joint of the festival.
Hawaiian reggae pioneer Fiji gave the weekend’s first performance on the headlining Bowl stage, and somehow his first performance in Cali Roots history. The artist who paved the way for island reggae was warmly welcomed by the Cali Roots crowd as fans held up colorful lays throughout his set-in support of their shared heritage. Many were shocked when at the beginning of the performance, Fiji was brought out to center stage in a wheelchair, but from his stationary position he put on quite the clinic for his fans.
Beach reggae band Ballyhoo! brought their music that, as they put it, loves “mixing punk rock with a rub-a-dub vibe” to the Cali Roots stage. The band from Aberdeen, Maryland helmed by a veteran of the industry Howi Spangler, started on a high note and sustained his energy throughout his set. So much of the band’s live show had evolved since their last Cali Roots appearance in 2017, and the group’s evolution was undeniable. The band’s most recent album “Detonate” centers largely around the death of Spangler’s father, the sentiment echoed in their live show as he proudly projected “This one’s for my dad, Sam Spangler” before playing “Selling Out.” Instead of ending with their most acclaimed and recognized piece “Walk Away” as seasoned Ballyhoo! fans have come to expect, Spangler and company decided to close with their new song “Riddled with Bullets” as bassist Nick Lucera screamed the parts of the song were originally outsourced on the record. The audience sang along enthusiastically as their set ended with a chorus of “home, take me home” that faded out slowly over time.
Common Kings followed Fiji’s example and represented Hawaiian reggae, albeit with a modern twist. Starting their set with Revolution, the audience quickly showed their excitement. Many of the same fans that showed up early for Fiji were still at the front by the barricade for Common Kings’ performance, and still holding up lays, voicing their support for the state of Hawaii. Singer Sasualei Maliga took a moment of reverence to recognize the military and their sacrifices before performing the song “Before You Go” then finished the performance with a spectacular performance of “No Other Love.”
Citizen Cope drew a large crowd to the Cali Roots stage for his mid-day set. One of the many artists on the bill this weekend who performed at both Northern California music festivals occurring that weekend, Cali Roots and Bottlerock, he showed no signs of fatigue during his set. Switching between acoustic and electric guitar, he went through a full set list that included “Let the Drummer Kick,” “Sideways,” and a chilling cover of Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”
Steel Pulse grounded the audience and served as a humbling reminder of the history of the music we all hold dear. Countless fans of an older demographic braved the elbows of the packed bowl theatre to get within spitting distance of David Hinds and company as they performed a set list that reflected decades of music from the inception of popular reggae to songs released this year. From “Ku Klux Klan” to “Rize” the band constantly reminded the audience that a passionate and informed population dedicated to fostering their own will always have the upper hand when fighting against tyranny in all forms.
The Green, far from the only Hawaiian influence on the day’s music, elevated the mood of the crowd as Caleb Keolanui’s always smiling face relaxed the already lucid congregation. Performing a setlist that reflected the gravity of an invitation to perform California Roots’ tenth anniversary, their show was full of surprises that even seasoned fans of The Green might not have been expecting, performing music not often heard in their live shows, including their 2013 hit “Chocolates and Roses.”
Quite some time ago, the first couple of articles I wrote for Grateful Web covered Stick Figure. In this tenure, I have never written an article about the band without spending a good amount of time talking about Cocoa the Tour Dog, and I will be damned if that tradition ends today. Cocoa the “Headliner” dog’s presence was amongst the highlights of the weekend for all who attended the festival. Walking onstage to hype the crowd before and throughout Stick Figure’s headlining set, not letting a beach ball cross her line of vision without giving it chase, she primed the crowd for the excitement that was to come. Scott Woodruff, the man behind the band, addressed the crowd many times throughout his set. An act that has truly grown with Cali Roots, he spoke about going from playing early morning sets at the festival several years ago to headlining at the tenth anniversary. His teary-eyed demeanor was moving as he choked up, trying to explain what this movement meant to him. He brought out many of his friends who have supported him along the way, notably day-one supporter TJ O’Neil, who as always makes an appearance to help with “Weight of Sound.” Stick Figure ended their set with a song all fans know very well, “Smokin’ Love.” The evening ended on a high note as the band invited a laundry list of guests onstage for this song, including Collie Buddz (who featured on the original 2015 recording,) Josh Swain of The Movement, and Bert Bollinger of Pepper, who all joined in a verse of the chorus “I wanna get high, I wanna get low, I wanna smoke a little spliff with you” and their own vocal improvisation.