Concert Review

The Flying Burrito Festival Was a Rainy-Day Miracle in Phoenix

Albert Hammond Jr. at the inaugural Flying Burrito Festival.
Albert Hammond Jr. at the inaugural Flying Burrito Festival. Michelle Sasonov
It was a rainy-day miracle.

The skies darkened, the clouds rolled in, water poured down, and Phoenicians left their homes to go out and do something in public. Anyone who's lived in the Valley for a while knows how big a deal this is. Phoenicians hate going outdoors when it's raining with a passion that would rival the Wicked Witch of the West. It may have something to do with the fact that 90 percent of Arizona drivers seem to forget how to drive as soon as it starts raining, thus turning the simplest commute into a white-knuckle death race.

Despite the damp weather, gray skies, and ever-present threat of vehicular manslaughter, a huge crowd came out to the Flying Burrito Festival in downtown Phoenix. The festival fenced off Second Avenue from Van Buren Street to Fillmore Street and had four stages, including one inside Crescent Ballroom: Carne Asada, Bean & Cheese, Nopales, and Al Pastor.

Strings of brightly colored banners crisscrossed overhead along the festival grounds. Tables were set up banquet-style down the center of the avenue with tablecloths still slick with rainwater. Food trucks and food stands lined the edges of the street, and there was a photo booth where you could ride a giant, majestic foiled burrito. Sitting atop the shiny tortilla rocket, festivalgoers looked like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove.

L.A. surf sirens La Luz opened the Carne Asada stage inside the Crescent Ballroom around 5 p.m. The main room was so tightly packed with bodies that a doorman had to count heads and let latecomers come in a handful at a time. La Luz were an early crowd favorite, drawing appreciative shouts and applause with songs like "I'll Be True" and "You Disappear." With irresistible surf licks, they sounded like ghosts haunting some Frankie & Annette beach party movie.

Whereas most festivals would put the biggest acts toward the end, Flying Burrito's schedule was front-loaded. It made for a refreshing change of pace to catch amazing sets from bands like La Luz and No Age when the sun hadn't even set.
Then No Age delivered one of the most blistering performances of the night. It was just the core duo of Randy Randall and Dean Spunt thrashing it up onstage. Spunt sang and bashed away at the drums while Randall coaxed a maelstrom of riffs and effects from his brightly colored pedalboard. Playing a mix of standby tunes like "Sleeper Hold" from Nouns and new material from Snares Like A Haircut, they ripped through almost an hour of music. Closing with the lovely "Send Me," they left our ears ringing like church bells.

Porches had the unenviable task of following. They got off to a rough start, trapped in a sound check that seemed to be going nowhere for almost 20 minutes. They tested mics, tuned instruments, and grew visibly frustrated.

But Porches singer Aaron Maine handled the situation gracefully, admitting later on that he was grateful it didn't turn into a shitshow. Porches sounded excellent live, but the delay seemed to sap some of the energy out of the room. No matter how poppy and alluring Porches sounded, it was hard to get back in the right vibe to really feel it.

click to enlarge Tables and vendors filled Second Avenue. - MICHELLE SASONOV
Tables and vendors filled Second Avenue.
Michelle Sasonov
Leaving Crescent Ballroom to check out the other stages, it was jarring to see a massive line outside the venue's doors. People stretched around the entrance and patio and down the Second Avenue sidewalk. Judging from the buzz of conversation around the line, it sounded like the Carne Asada act most folks were pumped to see was Albert Hammond Jr. of The Strokes.

Palm played the Nopales stage. Their sound was a touch strange, like they were performing in a large echo chamber and not on the corner of a street. It was hard to tell if it was a deliberate choice or just some side effect from playing outdoors on that particular stage.

A three-piece post-punk band from L.A., Moaning played a strong set on the Bean & Cheese stage. Situated behind The Pueblo, it was the most striking stage at the festival: a dirt lot with a wall on one side, chainlink on the other, and a J.B. Snyder mural as its backdrop. Moaning's songs were heavy with echoing vocals and guitar parts that hacked and slashed with all the grace of a chainsaw.

The next couple of hours passed in a blur, wandering from stage to stage while dodging swaying drunks and sudden bursts of vape smoke. Vox Urbana closed down the Al Pastor stage with a crowd-pleasing set of Latin dance jams and instrumental vamping while doom-y psych rockers Orb played around the corner. Although the stages were a quick walk from each other, they were set up in such a way that neither stage's sound interfered with the other.

click to enlarge U.S. Girls had one of the night's best sets. - MICHELLE SASONOV
U.S. Girls had one of the night's best sets.
Michelle Sasonov
While it seemed like most of the festival went into the Crescent Ballroom to watch Hammond at 10, there was still a decent-size crowd that turned up to hear U.S. Girls. And Meghan Remy's group gave No Age a run for their money as best set of the festival.

With saxophone, guitars, keys, drums, bass, and a backup singer, U.S. Girls had everything needed to pull off an art-rock dance party. Singing with an intense expression that made her look like she was gripped with worry even when losing herself in the music, Remy led the band through one artfully constructed banger after another. Integrating vocal samples, bits of noise, and meditative passages of synth music that wouldn't sound out of place on a Terry Riley record, it was a captivating musical polyglot.

Critic’s Notebook

Last Night: The Flying Burrito Festival at Crescent Ballroom.

The Crowd: People love music and burritos, so it’s no surprise there was a strong turnout for the inaugural Flying Burrito fest. Age range was all over the place. There were kiddos, parents, aging hipsters, 20-somethings, the whole gamut of humanity willing to spend six hours wolfing down burritos and lining up to see a Stroke play. And thanks to the cool weather, there were quite a few folks sporting Steve Zissou hats.

Overheard: One bro asked another bro, “And the girls were into the father-son tag teaming?” as I walked to the bathroom. I hoped they were talking about wrestling. Runner-up for best "Overheard" goes to the guy who shouted "SO ARE WE" right after Moaning said "We're Moaning." Disappointed that nobody took a page from the Michael Scott playbook and shouted "THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID" at Moaning. C'mon, people. That was a slam dunk!

Random Notebook Dump: Saw a girl with a rainbow-colored purse that was shaped like a coffin. It was delightful, like the sort of thing Rainbow Brite would carry around if she had a goth phase.

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Ashley Naftule