Twilight Concerts light up Santa Monica Pier

Thirty-third season features Khalid, Miami Horror, Valerie June, Warpaint

photo by Michael Menachem • @MenoxMusic

Look in most any tourism book about California – or the United States, for that matter – and undoubtedly you will see Southern California’s Santa Monica Pier listed as one of the top destinations. It is a gem that has seen many incarnations over the years: a vibrant cultural center, business hub, tourist locale and a general good-vibes zone for residents and vacationers alike. Beyond the storybook mystique of the Pacific Ocean and beachfront community, the Santa Monica Pier is full of energy, with pick-up games of beach volleyball, families rolling around in the sand, bicyclists, skateboarders, couples romancing and dreamers looking for inspiration.

One such major source of inspiration (besides the iconic Ferris wheel) is the long-running Twilight Concerts series now in its 33rd year. When R&B singer Khalid, with support from Bibi Bourelly, kicked off the season on June 22, the region was jammed and the show was the talk of the town with an estimated 25,000 in attendance. Jim Harris, deputy director of the Santa Monica Pier, says, “It was probably our closest thing to a Beatles experience, lots of 18, 19, 20-year-old girls.” Harris would know; the longtime Santa Monica enthusiast and author worked at the Boathouse Restaurant (now Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.) from 1989 to 1995. Harris has seen the pier and the Twilight series grow and evolve throughout the years as the marquee event since the 1980s. The first series was in 1985, culminating as a result of the 1983 Save the Pier Week following the January and March storms of 1983 which destroyed the entire west end of the pier. Concern about the pier being destroyed and even closing changed the conversation once Save the Pier Week concerts were a big success. “The series at the time was produced by Kramer, Heller and King, which included four concerts underneath a giant tent where the Ferris wheel is today with the stage facing inland,” says Harris.

The tent of the early days was quickly outgrown and the program expanded to 10 weeks of concerts. The Twilight series became well-known to Angelenos once rock ‘n’ roll icon Bo Diddley was booked in 1990 to a packed house, around the time of his comeback, where he played so loud there were noise complaints on 20th Street. The solution was to have the speakers face the ocean. Diddley put the series over the top, and bigger names started stacking up the roster with a throwback each year: Jack Mack & The Heart Attack and Sha Na Na (1992), The Drifters (‘93), Dick Dale (‘96), Ozomatli (‘98), John Mayall (‘99), Richie Havens (2004), Los Lobos (‘07), Joan Baez (‘09’s Centennial celebration). “The beach started to develop crowds in the late 90s/early 2000s,” says Harris. “Los Lobos was the first one that really got people’s attention in terms of how many people you can fit on the beach, and a lot of people came for Joan, too.”

Upon entering the area this year, concertgoers are presented with flowers, various sponsors have tasteful booths and activations and “Silicon Beach” tech neighbor Snapchat is most prominently visible, with a candy machine, ghost logo bubble machine and a life-size Lite-Brite board in addition to 3-D glasses which, when held up to light, display the same dancing Snapchat logo. On July 27, the dance-themed night welcomed the Australian consulate general for their G’Day USA “Australia Rocks the Pier” headlined by electro-pop band Miami Horror with support from fellow Aussie natives Cleopold and Georgi Kay.

Miami Horror • photo by Jessica Hanley

Miami Horror lead singer Joshua Moriarty reflects on his band’s big night, “We got out there midday, like 12 in the afternoon, and the beach and pier were already full of people no matter what. Getting the time to see the stage empty and, as the hours set in, seeing more people on the beach with their families and picnics, it’s such a great community atmosphere, and it’s a really magical thing to be a part of.”

Melbourne’s Miami Horror are now LA-based, and they released ‘80s-flavored EP “The Shapes” earlier this year. They have enjoyed moderate success in the States with hits like “Sometimes,” “Real Slow,” “I Look to You,” “Holidays” and more, with potential to break big given the current dance culture. The band’s sound, which could be described as a cross between Duran Duran and Lionel Richie, offers slick bass lines on tracks like “Signs of the Times,” a bouncy new wave groove on “Leila” and an infectious tribal rhythm on “Azimba,” which all lifted the energy of the night.

“We always try to make sure we look sharp, sound sharp and bring the party,” says Moriarty. “It seemed like a good opportunity to introduce our music to people who have not heard of us. It’s fun to make it a bit of a spectacle and be able to create an image for yourself through art and clothing. There’s a place downtown, Suitfellas, where every time I get a chance I buy myself a swanky new jacket. I wore one of their jackets at Coachella. Once you get to go on stage, we’re a bit of a party band. It’s joyful music, so it’s great to play for families and everyone invited into this moment,” says Moriarty, adding, “I’m the aerobics instructor.”

photo by Michael Menachem • @MenoxMusic

On the programming side of things, Twilight Concerts boast a variety of entertainment options for all types of people, with nights that range from reggae and Latin to rock and neo-soul. Twilight Concerts are produced by RH&S Concerts, a partnership between veteran concert producer Rum & Humble and Hollywood Bowl muscle Martin Fleishmann, in tandem with Echoplex and Spaceland Presents owner Mitchell Frank and talent buyer Liz Garo. Frank and Garo speak to the variety one can experience at the annual series, as well as the special setting: “It’s a really great, diverse audience,” says Garo. “You get tourists, fans of the artist, you get people just coming down to see what’s going on. It’s different than a club booking where people buy tickets. There’s a lot of discovery, and the last few years we’ve been doing it we’ve been a bit more progressive and creative in the booking.”

“First of all, just the location, you’re at the Santa Monica Pier, the backdrop of course is the beach primarily, and then the rides and the pier itself,” says Frank. “There’s nothing like it, period. There’s a number of other beach concert series, but they are much smaller areas. This is just kind of, like, a pretty amazing location.”

“Martin, Mitchell and I keep a wishlist throughout the year and narrow it down,” says Garo. “At the pier, they kind of like to have categories – a Latin, a reggae, classic artists – so we have some boxes to fill. But we will want certain artists that will do fly-ins and some are routed here. Throughout the year, we get an idea what would work on the pier. It’s an ongoing back-and-forth of what will work and what’s a crowd-pleaser and what won’t alienate anyone as well.”

Twilight Concerts are also becoming somewhat of a tastemaker event, a crystal ball for rising talent, and success stories happen all the time. Certainly, having Khalid was a big win-win for the series. “I think last summer the performance that Rufus du Sol did was kind of a career-changing performance,” says Garo. “Having Khalid kick off this year, we booked that early on, we were even debating booking him as a support act, and once we were kicking off the series, he was blowing up.”

Valerie June • photo by Concord Music

Another such artist that seems will benefit from the big stage is Valerie June, who played the Twilight series Thursday, August 3, with New Orleans soul pioneer Irma Thomas opening. Memphis-based June is poised to become a household name, with a style that is as much Dolly Parton as it is Lenny Kravitz. The banjo-playing Americana singer, who released new record “The Order of Time” earlier this year, effortlessly blended folk, blues and funk throughout her set. Prior to getting into her bluegrass tune ”Tennessee Time,” June explained to the crowd in her sweet Southern drawl that, although she loves traveling around, the Volunteer State is what always feels like home to her. She shook her glorious dreadlocks during the upbeat funk jam “Shakedown,” the emotive, bluesy “Two Hearts,” the heartfelt “Somebody to Love” and the hopeful “Got Soul.” June is on her way toward a trajectory like that of an Alicia Keys or a Norah Jones, a career artist with her own perspective and something to say.

June had a lot to say during her performance, admitting she was “in the midst of good fortune.” Candidly, she told the crowd, “You don’t have to beg for the blues; it comes. So when you’re in the midst of good fortune, you have to say thanks.” And then she went on to add that she would never get up on a roller coaster, pointing straight ahead to the Pacific Park amusements. “It’s always a pleasure to be asked to perform a show of songs I’ve written,” said June. “Who knows? Maybe I’m lucky to be unknown to the mainstream world. My life gives me constant moments of, ‘Pinch, pinch, pinch – this dream is really happening!’ Santa Monica Pier’s Twilight Concerts are one of those lucky moments.”

June impressed on guitar, her voice able to transition from delicate moments to a growl and even to scat singing. It’s soothing one moment, intense and oozing with swagger the next. “It’s always hard to tell people what type of music I play,” said June on that night. “Because it’s a blend, it brings together an eclectic group of really cool folks who don’t really feel like they need much of an explanation to enjoy a sunset on the beach with good music and good stories, and that’s why it’s a good fit.”

photo by David Zygielbaum

Jay Farrand, executive director of Santa Monica Pier Corp., echoes this sentiment. “For visitors, the Twilight series at the pier is the best way to immerse yourself in an authentic LA tradition that represents the iconic SoCal beach lifestyle,” he says. “The waves are crashing, the people are diverse, happy and mellow, the weather is balmy and the tunes are always top notch. Many seasoned travelers know that the best memories from traveling don’t cost a dime, you just need to know where to find them.”

The Santa Monica Pier opened September 9, 1909, and the structure at the base of Appian Way is the Merry Go-Round Building, originally called the Looff Hippodrome, built in 1916. In 1987, it was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and the upstairs rooms were apartments, despite rumors about celebrity tenants. Some distinguished artists were known to visit one of the residents, Colleen Creedon, a Santa Monica activist who is remembered as the “Lady Above the Carousel.” The legend of the pier can be found in Harris’ 2009 book entitled “Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier.”

The Santa Monica Pier Corp. is a nonprofit proud of their record for safety, a respectful crowd and openness to all. Offering various community programming for locals, visitors, families and beyond throughout the year, Twilight Concerts deliver free live music to thousands on eight Thursdays throughout the summer. The sole remaining show of this season is on August 17 with Warpaint and Wild Belle. Santa Monica Pier also offers various other events, such as the Front Porch Cinema, a free Friday program that kicks off on September 30. Aside from ride sharing and biking, Los Angeles Metro Rail’s EXPO Line provides the most ideal transportation to the Santa Monica Pier and beach, connecting all the way from downtown.

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