The Power of the Riff Festival: A promotional quest in the name of metal
Think of Sunday's all-day Power of the Riff Festival at the Echo and the Echoplex as less of a celebration of heavy metal and more of a mission statement. The objective: Raise respectability for the perennially underground hard rock genre.
"I’ve been a fan of heavy music for as long as I can remember," said Night Horse singer Sam James Velde, who organized Riff Fest with Southern Lord head Greg Anderson. "I hope this will increase awareness and opportunity for bands of this nature to be able to play. You look at bigger festivals like Coachella, and you have a token heavy band. There’s Dillinger Escape Plan, or there’s Mastodon. But there’s no tent dedicated to that music. Yet metal, hardcore and true rock ‘n’ roll has an incredible fan base.This is something to try and make a strong impact."
Spaceland Productions, which runs the two Riff Fest venues, has long been a champion of hard rock. Independent acts such as stoner rockers High on Fire, instrumentalists Russian Circles and Southern Lord artists as Boris and Sun O))), who represent the genre at its more experimental, are a few who have been regulars at Spaceland, the Echo and the Echoplex. Riff Fest carries some big names, including a return of Nashville hardcore act From Ashes Rise, locals Goatsnake and recently reunited vets Corrosion of Conformity, but much of the bill, Anderson and Velda said, is about highlighting the acts who may not normally appear at the respected Echo Park venues.
"Spaceland books really good stuff, and quite a few Southern Lord bands," Anderson said. "They’re into heavy music, but I was surprised they wanted to do something of this scale. I was pleasantly surprised."
Riff Fest is set to start at noon. Admission is free, thanks to the sponsorship from a popular footwear brand, for those who have RSVP'ed. Afternoon acts include the Parisian thrash of Semen Sundae, frantic SoCal trio Nails and San Diego hardcore act Rats Eyes, among others. The day will play out as a tribute to Early Graves singer Makh Daniels, who was killed this week in a van accident.
For many of the lesser-known acts on Riff Fest, the day represents a chance to penetrate the sometimes volatile Los Angeles market. Few all-ages venues exist for underground acts, and metal-friendly clubs such as Chinatown's Mountain Bar and Hollywood's Relax Bar, the latter of which is booked by Southern Lord GM Eddie Solis, play to the genre faithful.
"L.A. is fickle," Anderson said. "It’s based on trends, and these bands fly under that radar. This is a cool opportunity. They can play at a decent venue with a good sound system. Those opportunities are few and far between. Relax Bar and Mountain Bar are great, but they’re small, and the sound systems aren’t very great. That’s their charm, but it’s nice to bring this to a big space."
The L.A. hard rock market, said Jordan Goldstein, whose Church of the 8th Day is one of the more active local bookers of metal events and shows, hasn't fully recovered from the loss of Hollywood's Knitting Factory last year. The all-ages venue was often the lone L.A. stop for many an outside-the-mainstream metal act.
"It has been kind of rough," Goldstein said. "Metal has always had a hard time being accepted by the mid-sized venues, and that's why the Knit stood out ... Smaller tours have been skipping L.A. because they can pull a better crowd and make a little more money outside of L.A. Rising costs for venue rental, bar guarantees, etc., has somewhat caused this, as promoters aren't able to offer as much money as they could a few years ago. Also, show attendance is almost half of what it was before this recession."
Riff Fest leaders Anderson and Velde sometimes sound more like advocates than promoters. The Sunday concert will include food trucks, as well as pop-up-shops from Vacation Vinyl, Origami Vinyl, Tee Pee Records and Southern Lord. Without the sponsorships, Anderson said Riff Fest, which will be first-come, first-serve, and there will be no ins-and-outs after 5 p.m., could have been a $30 or $40 ticket.
"In my opinion, L.A. is pretty weak in terms of being supportive of heavy music," Anderson said. "I don’t think there are many good venues to play. The booking staff at a lot of these places? I don’t think they have faith in heavy music, and their tastes don’t go toward heavy music ... It’s great we can do this festival, and it's great to show that Spaceland gets this. But in general? It’s sorry, especially in comparison to San Francisco or Seattle."
Spaceland Productions head Mitchell Frank said it's in the company's "blood" to book this type of event, and expects the venues to be at capacity early in the day. It could even be a springboard to more events of this ilk. "I’m sure once folks see the success," Frank said, "they’ll want to do more with this genre, as it’s got legs ..."
In terms of Spaceland venues specifically, Frank hinted that more metal-focused events or hard rock festivals are likely in his future. "We will probably be having other such events, maybe [more] slightly left-of-center of this one," Frank said. "Noisier? Or more metally than this one as well? This is [an] amazing chance for folks to check out a number of these incredible artists."
The day will represent the many sub-genres of hard rock, but there is a common thread -- and a goal.
"This is a convention of riffs and heavy music," Anderson said. "I hope I don’t come off as negative. I don’t want to sound like I’m an ingrate. This is a great opportunity, and we’re going to make the most of it. I hope this turns things around. The picture I tend to paint is more grim than it really is, but I speak to years of frustration."
-- Todd Martens
The Power of the Riff Festival, Sunday, Aug. 8, at the Echo and Echoplex. Enter at the Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd. Admission is free, but RSVPs are suggested. The event runs from noon to midnight.