Willie Nelson performs at the first BeachLife Festival in 2019. Photo by J.P. Cordero

by Mark McDermott

Seven hundred and thirty eight days ago, Willie Nelson stood on the main stage at the BeachLife Festival in Redondo Beach. The sun had just gone down over King Harbor, forming a spectacular, multi-hued backdrop behind the legendary singer that, like the festival itself, seemed almost too joyous to be real. 

Musical highlights were many. Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson joined Grateful Dead tribe elder Bob Weir to close out Friday night. Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love closed out Saturday, where it had all begun for them more than a half century ago, reaching a point of harmonious delirium as they sang “Surfin’ USA” and particularly the lyric, “Haggerty’s and Swami’s/Pacific Palisades/San Onofre and Sunset/Redondo Beach L.A.!” 

To close out Sunday night and the festival itself, Nelson sang a medley that began with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the old Carter family dirge about a family burying their mother and hoping amid sorrow to remain together. The first songs Nelson had ever learned as a boy in Texas were church songs, and here, with a congregation of 10,000, he closed the festival on a spiritual high with “I Saw the Light,” the final song of the medley. “I saw the light, I saw the light/No more darkness, no more night/Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight/Praise the Lord, I saw the light.” 

Those were the final words sung at BeachLife 2019. The festival, which attracted more than 26,000 people over three days, had enjoyed an astonishingly successful inaugural rollout. “BeachLife was a near-perfect first year festival,” Buzzbands reported. “It was the quintessential Southern California moment,” Forbes magazine wrote. 

And so BeachLife 2020 was highly anticipated. The festival was scheduled for May 1 to 3. The lineup was announced that January and included the Steve Miller Band, Counting Crows, Ben Harper, and a celebration of Bob Marley’s 75th birthday featuring his sons Ziggy and Stephen Marley.

Then March 2020, the month that felt like a decade, brought COVID-19 and massive shutdowns around the globe. Early in the pandemic, there was still hope it would pass quickly. Festival co-founder Allen Sanford, in announcing postponement, expressed optimism that the delay would be a matter of months. 

“We will need a healer again, so hopefully by the time BeachLife comes around, by late summer or early fall, it’s going to meet a lot of people’s needs,” Sanford said. “We’ll take that responsibility really seriously, kind of giving people something to look forward to.” 

Ziggy Marley seconded that emotion. He said the challenging time was a reminder of human connectedness. 

Stephen and Ziggy Marley were scheduled to perform their father’s songs at 2020’s BeachLife, which was canceled due to the pandemic. They are rumored to be in the lineup this September. Photo courtesy BeachLife

“What this thing shows us is that we’re all connected,” Marley said. “Do we know that now? Can we realize that now — that what happens to one human being affects us? Can we realize at this moment in time that this is a lesson to learn, that if we understand that we’re connected we can live a better life on this planet?”

Summer came, and the pandemic worsened. Autumn came, and the pandemic painfully lingered. The next year dawned, and the pandemic surged to its devastatingly worst days. The notion of BeachLife wasn’t even a question. But then, as the second year anniversary neared, vaccination finally put the novel coronavirus in steep decline, and BeachLife revived. 

“With cautious optimism, and eyes wide open, we have begun the massive process of rebuilding BeachLife — both because we are ready to get back to work, and because we feel strongly that live music and togetherness are essential to the recovery of our community,” said BeachLife co-founder and managing partner Allen Sanford announced in April. 

Via Facebook, Sanford more vividly expressed the cautious part of his optimism. 

“Sure hope we don’t have another downturn because I’m out of whiskey and ready for sunshine, live music, and beers,” he wrote. 

BeachLife 2021 is scheduled for September 10 to 12, back in King Harbor. Though the full lineup will not be unveiled until May 21, Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand gave a sneak peak at his State of the City address two weeks ago, revealing that Counting Crows and Ben Harper would be among the headliners. The Marleys are rumored to be back in the lineup, singing their father’s songs, while one of the biggest reveals has been teased by BeachLife social media, noting that a band quintessential to the SoCal surfing and skateboarding scene will be announced.

But the bigger question remains: will BeachLife really happen? Variant novel coronavirus strains have ripped through a handful of other nations and a vaccine-resistant strain has appeared —  albeit in miniscule numbers — in the United States. 

Sanford and the BeachLife team are proceeding fully aware of the gamble they are taking, and with optimism intact. They are past the point of no return at this point, with the lineup nearly 95 percent booked. 

“There’s a ton of downside risk, right?” Sanford said. “So the obvious one is if there’s a resurgence. The second one is there could be political measures that make the festival untenable. Both of which are complete wildcards  And there’s a third: we’re just coming out of a year and a half of an unbelievable amount of stress, and now we’re going to execute as best we can [to organize the festival], but we’ve only got four months, where we usually need eight months.”

“It’s a very, very difficult task, what we’re trying to do. But either we’re going to be another casualty, and something’s going to happen and I’m going to lick my wounds again, or we timed it perfectly. I like to think it’s the second, but I’m not ready to say it is the second until Sunday night of the festival.” 

Rob Lissner, the other BeachLife co-founder, said the decision to go forward was hardly a no-brainer. 

“I think we started out saying, ‘Better safe than sorry,’” Lissner said. “And then as we started engaging with the community and just realizing how ready everybody was, given the rough year that everybody’s had, we kind of calculated what the worst case scenario could be and said, ‘You know what, given the rough year, we’ve got to give this a go.’ We’re chomping at the bit as much as everybody else…just to create some happy memories and some smiles for people from the South Bay and elsewhere. And I think that our ability to do that and impact 30,000 people was the thing that put us over the edge.” 

Another related factor was at play. Few businesses had been hit more squarely and comprehensively than live music and restaurants. Sanford owns several restaurants and a live music venue, Saint Rocke (which he reluctantly put up for sale as the pandemic sank in). He and everybody around him were put into a state of indefinite suspended animation throughout the pandemic. In fact, if you were to try to design a way to completely wipe out live music and eating out, you would be hard pressed to come up with something more effective than COVID-19. 

“It’s been brutal, man,” Sanford said early in the pandemic. “It’s been really hard on our way of life and on entertainment and restaurant work. Just gnarly.” 

So 14 months later, when Sanford saw a creak of light shining through this long darkness, he went for it. 

“I didn’t want to end the year of 2021 with defeat, saying, ‘Screw it, we’ll do it next year,’” Sanford said. “I wanted, at the end of this thing, to say, ‘No. We’re back. Life is back. Humanity is back.’” 

“You know, people look at the festival and they go, it’s just a music festival, dude. It’s just music,” Sanford said. “And they kind of downplay it. And then you get city council guys texting, ‘Hey, dude, did you think of this band?’ You start to think about it and you go, ‘No, actually, music —  everybody loves music. Everybody looks forward to music.’ And what’s more powerful in life and optimism and hope? So you might downplay it and just call it a festival. But funny enough, BeachLife in September is kind of a beacon of optimism: we all have something to look forward to, and that’s the main reason I’m risking doing it in 2021. I don’t get any awards for being early. In fact, it could work the opposite for me. But to go into 2022 having been defeated in 2021, again — I don’t want to get back to the world that way.”

 

Skechers president Michael Greenberg, a BeachLife investor. “I’ve been to a lot of festivals, and usually you don’t know that many people, right? But BeachLife, everybody knows each other,” Greenberg said. “It’s one giant house party.” Photo by J.P. Cordero

Into the light

If the gamble pays off and on Sunday night, September 12, 10,000 people are happily swaying at sunset (to the music, say, of Bob Marley) and Allen Sanford is standing side stage with a smile across his face, BeachLife will truly have celebrated pandemic’s end. After too much suffering, too much loss, we will have made it to the other side. “One good thing about music,” Marley sang, “When it hits you, you feel no pain.” 

It will take years to unpack what we just experienced. But Sanford, who was a philosophy major back in his days at Santa Clara University, has already noted some differences as he re-engages with his business life. 

“I’m seeing that there’s two types of people coming out of COVID. There’s those who went aggressive, heightened, just almost neurotic,” Sanford said. “Then there are people who have settled in and, seeing the bigger picture, started to just have a more world community view. And it’s really interesting. As I’m getting back into the business of meeting with people, every meeting I go to now I’m like, ‘Okay, which side did they go to?’” 

“In 30 years, we’re going to remember COVID and we’re going to talk about it and we’re going to talk about the people who actually did something, and helped, and we’re going to talk about the people who disappeared and just walled up their fortresses and went away for a while.”

A few people have stood out. Skechers president Michael Greenberg, who is also a BeachLife investor, saw that many of the restaurants in his adopted hometown of Manhattan Beach might not survive the pandemic, and with their closure hundreds of jobs would be lost. He established a relief fund, and though a handful of other donors contributed, he personally contributed $500,000 to help keep the restaurants afloat. 

“Here was a guy like Michael Greenberg who could have easily disappeared, right?” Sanford said. “He did the opposite. When we talk about people for the next four decades, that guy will be ingrained in my memory. That guy totally stepped up. He didn’t need to do it. He could have been in one of his guest houses somewhere in the world, gone. But he was here, right? That was a shining example of a guy who truly, truly cared about the tribe.” 

Greenberg has likewise closely observed how people have reacted to the pandemic. He expressed gratitude for his many Skechers employees who suddenly became frontline workers, as well as designers whom he believes did their very best work during the pandemic; in fact, 2021 will likely end up being his company’s most successful year yet, financially. But Greenberg said no amount of positive thinking can wipe away the real losses of the last year. 

“These were very adverse times that none of us have ever been through, or could not have even imagined,” Greenberg said. “You know, seeing the country and the world basically paralyzed and come to a screeching halt —  never in my wildest imagination could I have predicted such a thing…. We all went through it, knock on wood. And we all know there’s so much sadness. We can talk about coming out of it and smiling and high fiving and going to restaurants, but the fact of the matter is, there are so many people who have lost loved ones, and they will never come out of it, right? It’s just god awful. We all know people who are no longer here because of it. I had three acquaintances on one weekend who left this earth.” 

BeachLife put smiles on faces young and old. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

Greenberg took sustenance from the community around him. 

“As far as the pandemic in our beautiful little enchanted village where we live, this was a time when everybody came together and rolled up their sleeves,” he said. “It wasn’t about ourselves. It was about our community. And I think that we as a community demonstrated that when times get tough, we would pull together and prevail. There are casualties, and there are business casualties. No question about it. But there would have been more, far more, if we didn’t get creative.” 

And then there was Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand. He was a key figure in making BeachLife happen the first time, both through facilitating the festival with the city and through his two decade-long fight to stave off development in King Harbor, which without his efforts would likely have been a construction site or a shopping center rather than a festival site. Almost immediately after the first BeachLife, Brand was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, which had spread to his brain. When COVID-19 arrived, nobody was more vulnerable to it than Brand, yet he continued on as mayor, and in fact became a regional leader during the pandemic. 

“He’s another guy who, you know, should have been looking out for himself,” Sanford said. “The guy was sick. He should be holed up. And he provided the leadership that we all needed. I mean, he was there anytime I needed them — for the parklets [outdoor dining in Riviera Village]… Anytime, he was just willing to jump in. He’s another perfect example of a guy who absolutely crushed it as far as providing leadership during COVID.” 

Sanford has a tattoo on his left arm that says simply, “Eudaimonia,” which is what Aristotle called his philosophy of ethics. According to the Ethics Center, “For Aristotle, eudaimonia was achieved through living virtuously – or what you might describe as being good…. By extension, the eudaimon life is one dedicated to developing the excellences of being human.”  In dealing with Brand, Greenberg, and other folks, such as Redondo Beach police chief Keith Kauffman, Sanford has found himself thinking a lot about Aristotle’s philosophy. 

“His whole lesson was super simple: just find people you think are ethical and good people and try to be like them,” Sanford said. “So that’s my guiding force. It started with my dad, and then I found people whom I really liked and learned from them. And then I emulate what I liked about them. And I’m not shy to say that.” 

It’s also his hope that BeachLife is something more than a festival but a larger force of good. During the pandemic, BeachLife launched “Operation Smiles,” which leveraged its corporate partnerships with Suburu Pacific, Tito’s Vodka, Brown Foreman, and Beach Cities Health District to purchase gift cards from struggling businesses and distribute them to struggling people. 

“It started to make BeachLife what I want it to be, which is a lifestyle and a culture,” Sanford said. “So that was just a natural reaction, which is, ‘Why wouldn’t BeachLife help out?’ That’s what we do. When your friends are in need, you help them. In this, the friend became the community.” 

 

Cave life

The 17,000-year-old paintings found in caves in Southern France 80 years ago revolutionized our understanding of how deep in the human past the use of art reaches. The fact that similar paintings dating to nearly the same time were later found in Spain and Africa led some paleontologists to believe that the art —  drawings of woolly-haired rhinos, bears, mammoths, oxen and other animals from the end of the Paleolithic era —  represented a creative explosion of sorts, a time when humans became more fully human, separating themselves from their Neanderthal counterparts. The art was believed to have been created by shamans, the religious leaders of early humankind who helped give a greater sense of meaning to life, and in this case painted animals to honor past hunting trips or in support of future such endeavors. 

Only much later was something else discovered: the paintings were all located in the most acoustically resonant parts of those caves. The caves were not just some kind of shrines. They were concert halls. The urge to commune with music may even have been the central purpose of these subterranean gatherings. 

BeachLife co-founders Allen Sanford and Rob Lissner. Photo by J.P. Cordero

Music has, in fact, been central to the human endeavor since there have been humans. Some linguists believe music preceded language. Songs throughout time have carried the history and moral lessons of our ancestors, as well as many utilitarian functions —  in Australia, for example, songs serve as maps for the continent’s indigenous peoples. 

And so on September 10, when the crowd congregates and the amps are turned on and way, way up, it won’t just be BeachLife that is back. Everyone present will be a little bit more human. 

“I mean, music, as everyone knows, is the universal language,” said Jim Lindberg, the lead singer for Pennywise and BeachLife’s director of brand and content. “And let’s be honest, look at what happens at music festivals. People get together and they have a good time. You may meet your future husband or wife or girlfriend there. If you bring some friends and family with you, it’s going to be a time that you remember for your whole life. I know people will look back at 2019 and say, ‘Gosh, remember when we saw Steel Pulse right down here at the beach? And how cool was that when Willie Nelson played as the sun was going down?’ It’s like those are touchstones that live on with you for a long time. I know my daughter will remember seeing Post Malone at Coachella in the front row for the rest of her life. He came by and gave her a high five and she was more stoked for that day than scoring three goals on the soccer field.” 

“That experience of having that communion with music is so important to people because it’s almost animalistic, in the sense of that’s how animals communicate and that’s how we’ve communicated for a long time, expressing ourselves,” Lindberg said. “And I know from being a musician, we don’t write songs to just play to ourselves in our room. We write them because we want to go out there and entertain people and have them respond, to have that give and take.”  

Sanford said the feedback he’s been getting in anticipation of BeachLife is startlingly emotional. 

“I’ve talked to several people about the festival in the last week or so, and three or four people are like, ‘Dude, I might cry at the festival. That’s how excited I am to see and to be around people again,’” he said. “I think there is going to be a lot of stranger hugging. BeachLife was already like that, already had a sense of community to it, and I think now it’s going to be like that even more.” 

The first BeachLife couldn’t have better demonstrated what Brand had been arguing since 2002: that King Harbor was meant for recreation, for communal gathering, and not for large scale development. 

“The BeachLife Festival was so transforming and stimulating to everybody’s imagination, in terms of what this area really ought to be about, where the future ought to go instead of focused on endless development,” Brand said. “It’s about the outdoors. It’s about music, and getting together, gatherings. It really brought something to our waterfront that I’ve never seen down there before, and just showed what it could be, and what it should be. So it was an unexpected epiphany, that I wasn’t the only one having.” 

And now, after a long painful wait, Brand is optimistic both for BeachLife and for what it represents for the Redondo Beach waterfront. 

“I think it’s going to be fantastic,” he said. “After what will hopefully be a wonderful summer, a big celebration of having gotten through the pandemic and gotten vaccinated and gotten their lives back, gotten their waterfront back, and looking forward to even greater things in the future. I can’t thank Allen Sanford and Rob Lissner and the other investors for having faith in our community and putting their dollars to work for us. We want to make it work.” 

Musically, festival organizers aren’t saying what the lineup will be just yet. Both Lissner and Sanford said there is a structure in place, however. 

“Friday is going to be a little bit more K-Rock heavy, if you will, and people will be able to really have a good time and the music will be a little faster paced,” Lissner said. “And Saturday, we’ll have some good nostalgia. Sunday will just feel really good on-the-beach day,  listening to what we consider really great beach vibes.” 

“Friday is, ‘I’m amped. I’m coming back from a year and a half of COVID and I want to f****** rock right now,’” Sanford said. “Saturday, now I want to party. Now I want to have a good time….All fun, a lot of hits. And then Sunday, now I really want to listen to music. I’m tired, but I want to really get into the music.” 

Lindberg said Pennywise was getting ready to play a show this month for the first time since pre-pandemic and no, it isn’t just like riding a bike. 

“We’ve been away from it for over a year,” he said. “And yes, to a certain point, we haven’t forgotten how to play guitar, or sing the songs. But it’s been a long time since we’ve been back in the community and it is going to feel different and it is going to feel strange. And you do have to watch what you say, when in reality, you just want to go out there and blow doors, and not think about any of that type of stuff.”  

His plan for his upcoming show sounded like a good plan for BeachLife. 

“For me, I really feel like we’re just going to come out and just go for it, and let the music do the talking,” Lindberg said. “I want this to be about the music and the fun and the experience. It’s kind of like these days when you get back together with people, it’s all been said already, like, ‘Yes, that was a crazy year that we just went through.’ And it’s going to go down in history as that. But it’s like, less talk, more rock.” 

See BeachLifeFestival.com for more information. ER

 




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