If there's one thing that makes a music festival truly great, it's a sense of identity. The Lollapaloozas and Coachellas of the world work because they know the vibe and aesthetic they wish to achieve, and they do so every year. Without that core identity, festivals quickly shutter.
That's kind of a concern for Pot of Gold.
Only in its fifth year, PoG has already undergone some drastic changes in booking style. In years past, there was a healthy mix of rap, rock, country, random jam bands, and more. This year, the lineup was almost exclusively rap and R&B. It certainly sets the festival apart, especially in Arizona, but the indecisiveness does raise some real questions. Is this a permanent shift, and if so, will it be the one to make PoG stand out? Or is this another step in the festival's evolution?
Of course, on day one, the biggest problem seemed to be actually getting acts on stage. A few minutes is one thing, but by nearly 5 p.m. there’d only been a 20-minute set from Dann G (albeit one that was really fun and explosive, drawing a decent crowd). There were times when the steady soundtrack of the carnival rides on site felt more entertaining.
That may have have something to do with the new location. Having debuted at Tempe Beach Park, followed by three iterations at Chandler's Rawhide, PoG relocated to Steele Indian School Park for this year. It's certainly a large enough space, and there's enough grassy areas and picnic areas to accommodate the festival's hustle and bustle. One would think it would be a much better place to hold a festival, right?
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Not so much. Long lines at will call, increasingly annoyed attendees, and a total communication breakdown were all par for the course Friday. (It's also worth pointing out that the media check-in was also empty). The park itself was nearly empty by the 4 p.m. kickoff time save for scattered fans, last-minute soundchecks, and random vendors. Issues only compounded as the day rolled on, and most acts ended up being a minimum of 30 minutes late, which threw off set times and forced some acts to go under.
By 7 pm., the delays rippled, with Ma$e to taking the Central Stage an hour late, his soundcheck overpowering Ivy Queen’s set on the surprisingly on time Camelback Stage (Totally worth it for a 10-minute set that ended with a social media plug) .But that was only the start of the schedule's unraveling. Ice Cube went on an hour earlier at 8 p.m., cutting Jon Z’s set short, and so forth for the remainder of the show, with Snoop Dogg acting as the de facto headliner for the Central Stage around 10 p.m.
Because of the shift, Ozuna played his scheduled time of 9 p.m., but now having to follow Cube. That might be a bad omen for some acts, but the singer seemed to take it all in stride. It helps that Ozuna is in a league his own. There’s crossover appeal within his poppy songs, which balance folksy flourishes with strands of electronica. Part of that success is that Ozuna is just a brilliant star with a charming and highly engaging stage presence, even if there’s a language barrier for some. He's the sort of talent one can’t help but latch onto. He stands tall among all the strobe lights and smoke machines, and his clean smile and giant beating heart makes every song feel a little bigger.
Performances like Ozuna make all these problems seem like minor inconveniences, but still, they added up Friday, painting a picture of a festival that clearly stumbled in a new location and a fresh set of logistical demands. It goes back to the move out of Rawhide: That’s a space made for these events, and spaces like Steele Indian aren’t necessarily.
That said, this abrupt turn into full rap and R&B block party had one upside in that it drew a multifaceted crowd. Sure, you had your usual throngs of young people in search of sun and fun (and booze). But there were also grown kids with their middle-aged parents, young children, and even a few people chilling with their dogs. There was a solid, cross-racial mix just as eager to eat a corn dog or ride the Turbo as they were to get drunk to Ice Cube. And most remained in pretty good spirits despite the scheduling hiccups and changes.
In many ways, Snoop Dogg felt like the best sort of encapsulation of this crowd. He's clearly the act with the most universal appeal among the hip-hop heads, party kids, and OGs. Plus, he tends to play it safe, which isn't to say he's not confrontational or a hard R rating. He busted out plenty of popular collaborations ("All I Do Is Win," "I Wanna Love You," etc.), plus standbys like "Drop It Like It's Hot" and "Murder Was the Case." The formula works, and even if it tends toward nostalgia or the greatest baseline of interest, Snoop still shines. No matter what he's playing, the right crowd bolsters his inherent charisma and subtle but effective stage presence.
Even with Snoop, there's pet peeves that can't be ignored. There were miscommunications with security; people’s irksome, over-extended Instagram photo shoots; and the proximity of the two stages (it proved slightly clunky moving between Camelback and Central stages). While some of that feels inconsequential, it's all about the greater context. Issues with festival identity and traffic and $10 tacos don't prevent a festival from excelling. It does, however, color the entire affair, and demonstrate the larger shortcomings of the city's music fans.
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Yet there's just as much to have been overjoyed about at PoG. There was the abundance of shaved ice (consumed while watching delightful 10-year old rapper Lil Lu), the many wares of local street artists, the walls of graffiti, and people dancing at or near swing sets. There was a moment around 5:30 p.m., watching NB Ridaz, and a slight breeze kicked in as they sung tunes about Seventh Street. This is very much a hyper-Phoenix experience, an extension of the city’s vibes and sense of community, a sweet little slice of everything that is 602.
While he’s not from the city (albeit temporarily a resident of the “fucking Southside”), Ice Cube was very much in that same vein: A tactful nostalgia act that bounded across his rather stacked discography. Cube approached his set with an understanding of his place in the canon, playing Westside Connection's "Bow Down" and "Straight Outta Compton" like he was The Temptations touring casinos. The crowd reacted as you’d expect, eating the crunchy gangster tunes right out of his mitts. The awkward air that came with some new material — namely the anti-trap music tune "Don't Bring Me No Bag" — only proves that Cube works best right in his wheelhouse. Even if he had a penchant for playing his own film clips, Cube proved himself a showman in the purest sense, delivering the hits (often heavy-handedly) for fans happy to play along with the retro-mania.
Night one of Pot of Gold 2019 was complicated, equal parts joyous block party and logistical nightmare. But what's the final takeaway? There’s an old bumper sticker they once sold at Frances: “Love Phoenix or Leave Phoenix.” Maybe that’s a bit dismissive of any actual shortcomings, but often that’s how things work. Phoenix can be a "take it or leave it town," and the good comes right with the bad. In the case of Pot of Gold, it’s all ultimately worth taking, even that means staying up past your bedtime.