Santa Monica Pier concert season opens with Rostam, Dijon and Jen Awad
“Local Meets Global” is the appropriate and timely theme for this summer’s 35th annual Twilight on the Pier concert series, bringing an eclectic mix of live music to Santa Monica Pier for free Wednesday-evening concerts through Sept. 25.
Each outing features three acts that, except for this week, are curated around a different cultural motif: Latin Wave on Aug. 28, Middle East Beats on Sept. 4, Island Tides on Sept. 11, Aussie Splash on Sept. 18 and Japanese Vibes on Sept. 25.
If there is a unifying concept for the Aug. 21 kickoff event, it’s Los Angeles-based musicians with a stubborn resistance to classification: folksy R&B slow jam singer-songwriter Dijon; energetic retro soul singer Jen Awad; and Rostam, the Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist, producer and seminal member of beloved indie rock band Vampire Weekend.
It’s hard to imagine Awad emerging from anywhere other than L.A. By day a fashion designer downtown, by night the native Angeleno is a flamboyant, gutsy soul diva with a penchant for miniskirts, blood-red stiletto fingernails and irreverent asides.
She’s released three EPs and a handful of boldly arranged singles in recent years, along with several clever videos that showcase her retro style flair as well as her humor. “Bad People” (“…need loving too”) finds her batting her eyelashes while roped in a chair, “Perils of Pauline”-style, before reversing the scenario and grinning at the camera while waving pistols at her former captors like a two-fisted Annie Oakley. Clutching a champagne bottle, she vamps through several costume changes like a gleeful ’60s starlet and pokes fun at herself for being “Hungover.”
Awad credits her Egyptian-Peruvian family for her larger-than-life persona, but her musical presentation takes cues from classic R&B heroes. Punchy arrangements benefit from a flashy horn section and stylish backup singers, as she advises listeners how to “Break a Man” and belts from-the-heart soul screeds like “Love is Dead” and “Night.” She also designs eye-catching outfits for herself and her band. If the visuals they project aren’t old school, the “we’re here to entertain you” tradition they acknowledge is.
Onstage, Awad marches, stomps and shimmies like a punk go-go dancer, as she exhorts audiences to treat each other right and sing along on show favorites like “Basic Bitch.” Woe betide the lover or friend who takes her affection for granted. As quick as she is to crack jokes about herself and former friends, the heart she bares is boldly, endearingly human.
Rostam, a celebrated genre-buster, draws enthusiastically from a wide range of musical influences.
Since his good-terms split with Vampire Weekend in 2016, he’s only solidified his reputation as a mad-scientist producer.
Using idiosyncratic production techniques, Rostam collapses the distance between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” music, often while employing a vast range of instruments from pianos to sitars to synthesizers. In a review of his 2017 solo album “Half-Light,” Pitchfork praised him as spearheading “a no-brow sound that cheerfully destroyed barriers between genres and borders.”
Because his songs are widely consumed and often upbeat, Rostam is regularly classified as a pop musician, but the label is reductive. Songs on “Half-Life” were years in the making, featuring untold layers of instrumentation and a complexity that’s uncharacteristic of standard pop music. As artistic compositions, they most closely resemble a collage.
Since “Half-Light” he’s only released one new song: last September’s “In a River,” a jangly, mandolin-driven track about lovers skinny-dipping in the dark. On tour, it’s become a crowd favorite. When Rostam settled down to record the studio version, he used audio from a YouTube video, in which a San Francisco audience was clapping along, to guide his production.
“I often want the songs I produce to be meeting places for organic and electronic sounds — old traditions and new ones,” he explained in a recent statement. “‘In a River’ is new territory for me because although it’s a studio recording, it’s pulling from one of the oldest traditions in music, a live performance in front of an audience.”
Such moments can be rare — so far, Wednesday’s concert is expected to be Rostam’s only show this summer.
Twilight on the Pier concerts happen at 7 p.m. Wednesdays from Aug. 21 to Sept. 25. See santamonicapier.org for
a complete schedule.