How do you assemble one of the greatest R&B lineups in contemporary history and still manage to taint it with grave production flaws? That was the conundrum at the promising Soulquarius Festival that took place on Saturday (Feb. 18) at the Observatory Grounds in Santa Ana, California.
Touted as an “R&B Jam,” on paper, Soulquarius was a middle school dream come true. The lineup was staggering — R. Kelly, Erykah Badu, Brandy, Monica, DMX, Ja Rule & Ashanti, Mya, to name a few — and it promised to be a nostalgia trip for the contemporary set, one that had never been treated to such an assortment of musicians, particularly the ones who soundtracked their lives as far back as the early ’90s. Many of the artists performing across the four stages at Soulquarius had already reached their mainstream peak, but being able to enjoy them now, all in one place, seemed too good to be true.
And it was. The singers and rappers who took the stage throughout the overcast day were largely excellent, proving this was a festival that could have taken place 20 years ago and felt just as vibrant and musically potent. But it was the festival production itself that distracted from the purpose and execution of the event. Throughout the day, fans flooded the event’s Facebook page and Twitter with the hashtag #Soulquarius to share their experiences of having to wait for three hours in the general admission line despite having shown up when doors opened at 11 a.m., or to complain about how staff were unknowledgeable about logistics and the fact that the entire festival was running two hours behind.
Upon arriving, attendees who parked in a satellite lot were held on a bus and greeted with a lecture from one organizer about how their car would be towed if they hadn’t left by 1 a.m. It inevitably backfired, leaving a decidedly meager crowd for the event’s closer R. Kelly, who took the stage around midnight. (He was originally scheduled for 10 p.m.)
The layout itself — coupled with what felt like an oversell of tickets to many posting complaints to social media — was one of the biggest faults. The main stage, situated outdoors, sat catty-corner to the outdoor house stage, connected by a thin strip with merch booths on either side. Between sets — and often during — fans trying to buy custom t-shirts and tote bags collided with a swarm of festivalgoers trying to squirm their way to the other stage. It felt like a festival with the ambition of Coachella, but with one-thirtieth of the size.
Inside the Observatory, where there were two stages, it felt more like a club setting, providing a reprieve from the swelling mass of people at the outdoor stages. But even then, it had its issues. At the last minute, Brandy was moved from the outdoor house stage to the Observatory stage without warning and fans who figured it out weren’t let inside for a half-hour as Baby Bash, who brought out Frankie J to perform “Suga Suga” and “Obsession (No Es Amor),” wrapped his set. By the time Brandy took the stage at 11:30 p.m. to perform one of the most impassioned appearances of the day, running through “Afrodisiac” and “Sittin’ Up in My Room” with two male backup dancers, even the staff appeared to have had enough, as one bartender at the upstairs bar was too intoxicated to serve. Many who had come to see Brandy didn’t even know she was performing and didn’t find out until afterwards. And while she did perform, outside, an enormous line had formed for the after party where up-and-comer 6lack would appear, a confounding move considering that it was a separate ticketed event chosen to take place at a festival that was still going on.
To say that the music didn’t matter is to denigrate the event as a whole. And, despite the poor technical issues, the artists delivered. Kelis was one of the day’s best, clad in a shimmering purple body suit and reviving old hits like “Get Along With You,” “Millionaire” and “Milkshake,” the latter of which was mashed with the beat from Wu-Tang Clan‘s “Gravel Pit.” Monica swept through her discography (“Sideline Ho,” “So Gone,” “Angel of Mine”) while over on the opposite outdoor stage The Pharcyde shouted out J Dilla on “She Said” and “Runnin.” Too $hort played an early set (“You know you’re in Orange County when Too $hort goes on at 5:30,” quipped one attendee) and DMX followed, growling through “Party Up,” “What’s My Name” and “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” before ending with a signature prayer.
Newer talent like The Internet and BJ the Chicago Kid appealed to the surprisingly robust younger demographic at Soulquarius — the former treated the crowd to “Girl” and “Under Control,” while Earl Sweatshirt watched from backstage, the latter covering Michael Jackson‘s “Rock With You” and his Grammy-nominated “Turnin’ Me Up.” Ameriie forgot some of the lyrics to her songs, but the passion was fierce and present for “1 Thing” and “I Just Died.” Ja Rule and Ashanti did a duel set, all of their classics in tow and Badu stretched her tunes (“On & On,” “The Healer”) like psychedelic putty, each taking on a different tone or musical tint as she serenaded the teeming audience.
But it was hard to fully enjoy it all. For a first-time festival, it felt difficult to give Soulquarius organizers the benefit of the doubt. Many of the problems could have easily been foreseen — a bigger venue could have been selected to accommodate such a large crowd and some artists with full backing bands could have done a sound check prior to the event instead of on stage in front of impatient audiences as the schedule lapsed into severe tardiness. The idea for the festival was there and it’s impressive that they managed to get all of the artists to the same place, but that isn’t enough when ticket costs sat well past $200 for some. If Soulquarius gets revived next year, it will have a lot of mistakes to correct.