The fourth annual KAABOO music festival achieved sold-out status before opening day on Sept. 14, but the venue – the Del Mar fairgrounds near San Diego — is so expansive, at most times of the day it was possible to walk down the midway or work your way to one of the four stages — without pushing your way through the throngs of music lovers from Southern California and beyond.
Over 75 artists performed during the three-day affair, including headliners Foo Fighters, Imagine Dragons and Katy Perry. But KAABOO is more than music – it is a festival for the senses, with a wild assortment of food, artwork, comedy and personal care treatments. Here are some of the highlights of this year’s event:
Imagine Dragons Have Fun But Take Serious Turn
It would be hard to imagine a hotter rock act than Imagine Dragons right now. While many artists may never have topped a chart achievement like “Radioactive,” the ubiquitous hit which owns the record for the longest stay on the Hot 100 at 87 weeks, Imagine Dragons continues to write new Billboard chart history. For over a month now, they have had a lock on the top three positions on Hot Rock Songs. This week, “Natural,” “Thunder” and “Believer” are Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively. All three were performed on the massive Sunset Cliffs stage, set against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.
Temperatures were still in the balmy 70s at 8:25pm when the group opened with “Radioactive,” which may explain why frontman Dan Reynolds took the stage wearing only a pair of shorts. Or it could be that after working out with personal trainer Brad Feinberg to heal an autoimmune disease, Reynolds didn’t mind sharing his ripped body with fans.
While Reynolds and his band mates were clearly having fun, it didn’t stop the lead vocalist from taking a serious turn during “Rise Up,” as he held up a banner that read, “Destigmatize Mental Health,” to loud applause from the audience. And while performing “Demons,” a No. 6 Hot 100 hit from 2012, he made a personal plea to the crowd to speak honestly about depression and anxiety and to talk to a therapist as an alternative to more drastic measures.
By the end of its 90-minute Friday night headlining set, the band had played many of its hits, including debut single “It’s Time,” 2018 hit “Whatever It Takes” and a brief, slowed-down cover of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”
Foo Fighters’ ‘Inexhaustible Energy Source’
Foo Fighters were the Friday night headliners on the Sunset Cliffs stage. While Dave Grohl and company performed a steady stream of their own hits, Grohl made good on his claim that he can sing 45 seconds of hundreds of songs, by offering up a medley of Van Halen’s “Jump” set to the melody of “Imagine” by John Lennon, the Ramones’ “Blitzkreig Bop” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as well as that band’s legendary collaboration with David Bowie, “Under Pressure.”
Making his third visit to KAABOO in its four-year existence was Stephen Guerrero, a music producer and composer who has lived in San Diego for 11 years. During the Foo Fighters set, longtime fan Guerro told Billboard: “Dave Grohl shows up to every show that I’ve ever seen him at with a live performance that never shortcuts. He never holds back. He must have an inexhaustible energy source.”
Katy Perry’s Parade of No. 1 Hits
The final artist to perform at KAABOO 2018 was Sunday evening’s headliner, Katy Perry. In a The Day the Earth Stood Still-type moment, a red rocket ship from the ’50s opened up on stage, allowing Perry to make first contact with the massive Sunset Cliffs audience. “I know you waited all freakin’ weekend,” she shouted, as she opened with album cuts “Witness” and “Roulette.”
But the electric chartreuse-haired pop star announced, “When I come to a festival, I want to hear all the hits!” She followed that pronouncement by eight of her biggest songs in a row: “Dark Horse,” “Chained to the Rhythm,” “Teenage Dream,” “Hot n Cold,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “California Gurls” (preceded by her declaration, “I am truly a West Coast girl!”), “I Kissed a Girl” and “E.T.”
Interrupting the flow of hits with another album track, “Peacock,” Perry then mashed up her own “Bon Appetit” with Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” After, Perry told the crowd, “I’m so glad to be closing tonight” and said she wanted to do a song she wished she had written: Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.” More of Perry’s own hits followed: “The One Who Got Away,” “Part of Me,” “Swish Swish” and, with an Annie-ish intro of “Hard-Knock Life,” Perry went into another of her nine Hot 100 No. 1 hits, “Roar.”
There was only one more chart-topper to go, and so it was no surprise that Perry closed her 95-minute set — filled with costumes and set pieces that reminded of Lewis Carroll mixed with Babes in Toyland imagery — with her signature 2010 smash “Firework,” supported by real pyro on stage.
Zombies Still Going Strong After 57 Years
There were plenty of new acts in the line-up, many of whom weren’t born when the most senior group at KAABOO 2018 — who took the Trestles stage on Friday afternoon — scored their biggest hits. The Zombies first charted in the U.S. with “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” in 1964, after forming in the U.K. in 1961, and original members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone are still leading the quintet.
“I don’t think many people in England in the ’60s thought it was possible to have a lifetime career in rock ’n’ roll, and I was no exception,” Blunstone told Billboard after the band’s set. “I thought I was on a great adventure traveling the world with my pals playing the music that I loved and in some ways that adventure was intensified by the mistaken belief that it would all be over in two or three years. Now here I am 54 years later still fascinated by the mysteries of the music business and still committed to that great 1964 adventure.”
While many in the crowd were clearly old enough to have heard the group’s first hits on the radio, there were plenty of younger people in the Trestles audience, including Lori Birk, an IT recruiter who flew in from Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey just for KAABOO.
Watching her rock out to “Hold Your Head Up,” a song that was a hit for Argent’s eponymously named group in 1972, Billboard had to ask if she knew anything about the band. “My parents raised me on the Zombies,” she replied. “I first heard them when I was five years old. They are the No. 1 group I wanted to see at KAABOO.”
“We always play to an audience of very mixed ages,” Blunstone acknowledged after the show. “From people who have supported us from the very beginning to teenagers who ironically always seem to know all the words to all our songs.”
The group’s set included their original version of “I Love You,” covered in the U.S. by People in 1968, and “Time of the Season,” a 1969 hit from the critically beloved Odessey and Oracle album, plus “Moving On” from their 2015 studio album Still Got That Hunger. Argent intro’d the song: “Just as the  tour got underway, we were absolutely knocked out to receive a call from Billboard, to say, ‘We wanted you to know that for the first time in 50 years (as the Zombies) you’ve made the album sales chart!’ We went on to find that we’d actually made an appearance on six different charts at once that week – but entering the album chart once again felt so exciting. Thanks for that phone call, Billboard — it was so appreciated!”
Earth, Wind & Fire’s Music ‘Has Become Part of the DNA’
In a completely unscientific, random poll, Billboard asked a number of festival-goers which act they most wanted to see and the No. 1 answer was Earth, Wind & Fire, another group that formed before many of the folks at KAABOO were born. Verdine White was a founding musician when Earth, Wind & Fire formed in 1970. Ralph Johnson joined in 1971 and vocalist Philip Bailey was added in 1972.
Billboard sat down with the three long-standing members backstage before their performance and the conversation turned to playing arenas as opposed to festivals: “An arena is a more controlled situation,” said Johnson. “Out here at the festivals, things are a lot freer and looser. That’s the primary difference.” White added, “We’ve done a few festivals this summer, like the Love Supreme festival in the U.K. So we know what the audience will be like.”
Talking about their audiences spanning generations, Bailey offered, “The music has become part of the DNA in people’s lives. So we just go out there and have a great time. We alter the show just slightly because with some of our other audiences, we’ll do quite a few ballads in the set. This is not really a ballad audience, so we’ll kick mostly everything up, except for ‘After the Love Is Gone.’”
And that’s what Earth, Wind & Fire did, keeping the throngs dancing with hits like “September,” “Boogie Wonderland” and “Shining Star.”
A Band at the Beginning: Southern California’s Creature Canyon
Not all of the artists performing at KAABOO are as well known as Imagine Dragons, the Zombies or Earth, Wind & Fire. One of the best things about the festival is being introduced to acts at the beginning of their career arcs — one of whom last weekend was Creature Canyon, a Southern California-based outfit that already has a local fan base. Shortly after their Saturday noontime set on the Tourmaline stage, Billboard sat down with lead singer Austin Steele, guitarist Ryan Amyot, drummer Kyle Victoria and new members, bassist Aaron Lund and keyboardist Luc Fralic.
“This is the fun time,” said Steele, on the band starting to find success. “We’re gaining our momentum, starting to do the big festivals and gaining traction. We’re on an upward trajectory at the moment and hopefully we won’t hit our peak until we’re ready. We plan to build this year and 2019 with an album. I’m really excited for the next few years to see where we go.”
How did playing KAABOO fit in to their career goals? “It’s incredibly important,” Victoria explained. “This is one of the best places to earn fans. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Four hours after their performance, Creature Canyon was invited to do a live performance for Jam in the Van, the solar-powered mobile recording studio that posts videos to YouTube. Billboard was invited to crowd into the van with the five musicians and the production crew for a three-song performance that included “Love Me As I Am,” with Victoria offering up a drumbeat heavily inspired by Motown’s Funk Brothers.
And There’s More: Jewel, Billy Idol, Halsey and Beyond…
There were many other musical highlights, including a homecoming for Jewel, who told the Trestles stage audience, “I’m so glad to be back in San Diego.” She opened with her 1998 hit “Hands,” revealing that she wrote the song when she was homeless and living in her car, not far from the Del Mar fairgrounds.
Then there were thousands of people literally dancing with themselves as Billy Idol performed his 1980 Generation X hit, “Dancing with Myself.” He took the Grandview stage wearing a heavy jacket while the weather was still hot and a security guard at the very front of the crowd predicted he would have to shed the unseasonal outerware. By Idol’s third song, “Flesh for Fantasy,” he was showing bare skin. Halsey had an early evening appearance on the Sunset Cliffs stage, dressed in a Scottish tartan halter top. Talking about her hit “Closer” with the Chainsmokers, she said she just found out it was certified diamond for 10 million sales. “It was overplayed and annoying,” she teased. “I’d be in an Uber and the song would come on and the driver would turn it down.”
Halsey brought another of her collaborators on stage — G-Eazy joined her for “Him & I.” And electronic artist Robert DeLong did an afternoon set on Sunset Cliffs that was almost like an art installation, as his self-discovered sounds (not library samples) triggered his live performance. Then there was Post Malone’s tribute to the late Mac Miller, Tower of Power celebrating its 50th anniversary, Blondie still going strong and N.E.R.D.’s Pharrell Williams jumping into the audience to start a massive dance party.
If Music Be the Food of Life…
Beyond the music, there was comedy in the Humor Me nightclub, with top names like Kevin Nealon, Judd Apatow, Craig Robinson, Nikki Glaser, Louie Anderson, Craig Ferguson and Whitney Cummings. Hungry festival-goers had their choice of dozens of local restaurants’ offerings. A short walk around O’Brien Hall turned up wood-fired pizza from Dang Brother, dumplings from Bling Bling and offerings from Superfood & Company, La Jolla’s upscale Mexican eatery Red O and Del Mar’s Searsucker among many other dining options.
As the festival came to a close, organizers announced the dates for next year’s KAABOO Del Mar: Sept. 13-15, 2019. For the first time, there will be three KAABOOs in a year, as the brand expands to the Cayman Islands (Feb. 16-17, 2019) and Arlington, Tex. (May 10-12, 2019).