The inaugural BeachLife Festival celebrates L.A. beach culture through music

By Bliss Bowen

Who is the beach for? That’s a question often debated by families, artists, environmentalists and real estate developers, and one that’s being revived by the inaugural BeachLife Festival this weekend in Redondo Beach.

By any standard metric, BeachLife is a major live music event. The celebration of Westside and South Bay beach cultures, kicking off Thursday night with a concert by the original lineup of X during a VIP party hosted by Dogtown Z-boy legend Tony Alva, attracts a curious array of artists.

Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby, Steel Pulse, Chris Robinson’s As the Crow Flies and an “acoustic roots set” from Slightly Stoopid are Friday’s headliners. Brian Wilson, Jason Mraz, Everclear, Best Coast, Dawes, Sugar Ray, Violent Femmes and Chevy Metal are among Saturday’s highlights. Willie Nelson and Family, Ziggy Marley, Grace Potter, Blues Traveler, Venice, Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Poncho Sanchez, Colin Hay, Chris Pierce, Matt Costa, Charlie Overbey, and Lost Beach, among others, all squeeze into Sunday’s bill.

For the most part — Beach Boy Brian Wilson is a legendary exception — the music of those artists doesn’t celebrate beach culture directly. Rather, there’s a connected vibe of peace, love, understanding, and communal grooves. So what exactly does beach culture represent?

Alt-rockers Everclear actively defy the SoCal beach bro stereotypes that irk them

‘We Like Our Space’

Dominant stereotypes of surfer bros and Malibu millionaires irk Everclear frontman Art Alexakis, who was born in Santa Monica and plans to hit the Hightide Stage with the band at 1:15 Saturday afternoon. Gritty shadows gave different meaning to sunny days along the shoreline when Alexakis was a kid. Career-defining Everclear songs like “Heroin Girl,” “Santa Monica,” “Father of Mine,” “Wonderful” arose from his troubled childhood in both Santa Monica and the Mar Vista Gardens public housing complex.

“I could go on for hours about this subject of how beach culture has been portrayed in the media, and how people who don’t live here gauge their understanding by that,” he says. “But the reality is, I grew up in Dogtown in the ’70s, and it was rowdy. Super rowdy. There’s a song on my new solo record called ‘California Blood.’ People get the idea that people from California are all sweetness and light. We’re not. [Laughs] Get on the freeway sometime, see how that works out for ya. People here are badasses. We like our space. We like our liberal beliefs, for the most part. It’s a melting pot. …

“When I was a kid, the beach was no more than a mile and a half away, or in my junior high years a quarter mile away. I could see the ocean from the top of Ocean Park Hill when I walked out my door in the morning. I’d have to skateboard about four hills to get there, but it was right there. That whole skate-punk and surf-punk culture was actually becoming defined by my generation and the people a little bit older than me, like Tony Alva and those guys. I was much more into being a surfer than I was into playing guitar or being in a rock band. That’s always what I wanted to do, but I skateboarded, I surfed, I did all that stuff, and some of my biggest memories are on or around the beach. I got a million of them, actually.”

‘Saltwater in Your Veins’

Kipp Lennon, who started his pop band Venice in 1977 with brother Pat and their cousins Mark and Michael Lennon, has buckets of memories too.

“Our family has been in Venice Beach since 1917 — there’s hundreds of us,” he explains. “Our dads and uncles were pioneers of beach volleyball; we have photos of them playing in the 1930s. There’s 11 in my family and 13 in our cousin’s family, and we’ve grown up with lots of different types of music and throughout all the different shifting cultures in Southern California.”

Lennon and his cousins, who’ll kick things off from the Lowtide Stage at 11:30 Sunday morning, grew up across the street from each other at Lincoln and Venice boulevards. He describes idyllic scenes: riding bikes to the beach, listening to his sisters Diane, Janet, Kathy and Peggy sing as the Lennon Sisters on TV’s “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and gawking at hippies on the beach with his cousins and secretly wishing they could grow their hair that long (which they eventually did). The Beach Boys were indelibly part of their daily soundtrack, but Lennon notes, “It was just the culture of the times that everybody was listening to that California harmony thing.” Artists like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and members of the Eagles weren’t from here, “but certainly something happened in that weird melting pot of beatnik meets hippie meets folk. It turned out that you could hear it in the vocals.”

“27th Avenue,” a song from Venice’s new album “Jacaranda Street,” celebrates the Lennon family’s lifelong attraction to the beach community: “I’ll put my feet upon the sand/ Begin again where I began/ Yeah, that’s just what I will do.”

“You can’t help it; you’ve got salt water in your veins and you feel that tugging of the ocean because that’s the culture we grew up with,” says Lennon, who now lives in a tiny apartment by Speedway. “Not just surfing and the cliché version that people think about, but the actual people whose kids go to school here and are born and raised here and die here, and celebrations of people’s life on the beach. It’s a sincere, real world.”

‘The Way the Sea Moves’

Winemaking soulman Chris Pierce, who’ll get audiences in the groove with old and new tunes from the Riptide Stage with his band on Sunday at noon, recalls regularly jamming on reggae, blues, soul and original tunes at Patrick Molloy’s in Hermosa Beach from 2003 to 2006. Those formative experiences lead to performances and residencies at Saint Rocke and later WitZend in Venice, and half a dozen solo albums. Pierce’s roots are in Pasadena, but as he points out, being an Angeleno means the beach is part of your heritage even if you aren’t a Westsider.

“You can go hiking and to the beach on the same day and be in a metropolitan area for dinner; sometimes, late winter, you can go up to the snow and to the beach on the same day. Our whole Left Coast is surrounded by water, and it’s a big part of who we are. Southern Californians, whether they know it or not, are influenced in their daily lives and the way they move by the way the sea moves.”

Pierce, who’s looking forward to hearing “living legends” Ziggy Marley, Willie Nelson and Poncho Sanchez on Sunday, chuckles when acknowledging how hard friends who live by the ocean work to maintain their lifestyle. But he admires their “great sense of community and soulfulness.”

“A lot of the folks I know that have been deep in the beach culture for many years are some of the most soulful, spiritual folks that I’ve ever known,” he says, “… people who care about the environment and those around them.”

In keeping with that spirit, festival organizers are commendably striving to keep single-use consumer plastics to a minimum, and have enlisted forward-looking environmental groups such as the 5 Gyres Institute, the Rob Machado Foundation, the Surfrider Foundation
and Zero Hero to assist with recycling and cleanup.

Visit beachlifefestival.com for tickets (starting at $97) and a full listing of performers and activities.

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