"How many Day One R. Kelly fans we got in the house tonight?"
As the long California day decided to creep well past overtime, many an attendee at last weekend's Soulquarius had already left. Those who stayed were purely watching a 50-year-old R. Kelly sing baby-making music for a nonexistent participation trophy. Except there probably weren't many "Day One" R. Kelly fans in attendance. Less than an hour earlier, Erykah Badu, a victim of a truncated set, like many, had done a vocal poll of what ages decided this was the first big festival they'd attend in 2017.
Survey said: The '90s babies had shown up en masse.
And who could blame them for willful ignorance? Most of them hadn't been alive or cognizant of what Badu or R. Kelly were to people. It was clear when Badu ran through her set of Baduzim classics and the crowd of '90s babies half-heartedly sung the words. Meanwhile, their older counterparts belted out notes and when the time came for the awkward finish with Kelly, had somehow found unison with the strangers that had zero idea what kind of havoc a Jon B song did for people.
It was supposed to be finished around 11 p.m., enough time for people at the Observatory in Santa Ana to load up ride-sharing apps and make their way back to Los Angeles and beyond. Instead, I watched as R. Kelly allowed a woman to dry off his lips and his tongue and then grab his crotch well after midnight. People cheered and for a minute, I realized why I had sworn off trying to separate art from its creators. R. Kelly told us he was drunk. He made us do the "Contagious" argument with him playing Mr. Biggs, and sang at least a good 40 percent of every song meant for an OG Ron C F-Action tape. It was disturbing, and when it was all done after "Step In the Name of Love," people began walking out — only to find more people waiting in line to catch an after party for Atlanta's 6LACK (pronounced Black).
Only youthful ignorance would have told you to stay even longer. The smart ones bailed long before surge pricing hit.
Expectations for Soulquarius were understood. A massive lineup with a couple of decades' worth of fandom; a venue that could handle both indoor and outdoor acts. It seemed too good to be true. And it was too good to be true. The perfect blend of nostalgia R&B and hip-hop acts and genre enthusiasts who had dominated radio airwaves and music video countdowns with a couple of newer acts playing underneath. Soulquarius flew as close as one possibly could to the California sun on Saturday. However, it was evident as the day dragged that failure was coming. And the crash would be not fiery but tragically sad.
Soulquarius was doomed by infrastructure, down to the smallest of details. The outdoor stages, where The Internet, Ja Rule and Ashanti, the Ying Yang Twins and others played, were delayed by more than 30 minutes, or, in the case of Kelly and Badu, hours. Some acts that were scheduled to play on certain stages got moved, such as Brandy, who went from middle act on early schedules to indoor closer; even that proved to be a colossal screw-up when the 6LACK after party was to take place in the same place. When festival-goers finally made their way through after an approximate three-hour wait, they found themselves already behind a large collection of acts.
Even then, the moment they stepped onto the Observatory grounds, they had to fend for themselves. There was no map, no general sense of direction. Just food booths that stretched half a city block, a VIP tent that essentially asked for your ID for you to have any kind of access to alcohol outside, and a fabled media area that felt more like a hidden corridor you could access only via a special switch. Badu jokingly said that the festival organizers "hit a lick" off of the names on the list being the big selling point. She was probably right. Soulquarius felt like a first-year festival in execution, equipped with the ambition that made it too hard to ignore all the issues.
Were there stage managers to help navigate the area? No. Were there any Soulquarius officials looking like, "Hey man, I just work here"? Nah. In fact, regardless of the overcrowding and numerous concerns about venues hitting capacity (the Observatory and Constellation Stages boasted limits of 1,000 and 350 people, respectively), there were still tickets being sold for $110.
What great feat Soulquarius did accomplish for the thousands of attendees in Orange County was a renewed appreciation of certain acts. For nostalgia. For the times you've either acted out "Contagious" or listed off every woman DMX mentions on "What These Bitches Want." Or even watching the Ying Yang Twins prove that crunk music aimed for the booty clubs of America is our true national unifier. If you were one of many who walked as much as four miles from a parking spot to the venue, you missed Willow Smith delivering an imaginative set complete with a song she wrote the night of the 2016 election. You probably missed Kelis's attempt to make her already-eclectic set worth it for the thousands of people who weren't there for "Suspended" or "Caught Out There" but for "Bossy" and "Milkshake."
Yes, hearing a name such as Pretty Ricky brings up memories of mid-2000s juvenile R&B records geared toward sex. I'll be damned if they didn't have a room the equivalent of House of Blues' medium-size room packed beyond belief with fans singing word for word to "Playhouse," "My Body" and more. Sadly, they couldn't even find a climax with their biggest hit, "Grind With Me," because their set got cut. Which then led to at least 400 people trying to swarm one upstairs exit and near fights ensuing because of it.
But for others like Mya, Amerie and Jon B, large crowds equal validation. Regardless of how far they may be away from the general public's consciousness today, they still matter. Amerie, for example, had essentially been written off, almost a decade after she crafted a legit feels like summer ballad with "Why Don't We Fall In Love." She felt nervous before hitting the indoor Observatory stage but after the big horns and melodies of her hits began playing, she eased up and let her vocals do the talking.
As I boarded my flight Sunday morning, all the wear and tear of a music festival hit. My feet ached, my body longed to be back two hours ahead and for a moment, I felt for every concert or festival organizer I have ever encountered back home. Even if my personal beliefs regarding SXSW have shifted since my first go-round seven years ago, you at least knew where things were and what chaos to expect. FPSF, even A3C in Atlanta, managed to have enough structure from top to bottom in order to make things run smoothly. If Soulquarius wants to run this back again next year, the Observatory in Orange County probably won't be the best venue. Even if they use it again, one hopes the nightmares of the first year will be ironed out.
Last Saturday in the OC gave plenty of music fans a chance to relive either the songs of middle-school crushes or carpool karaoke. It also reminded people that no music festival can truly be called “great” if there’s no logic in its organization.
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