Pop Break Live: California is for Lovers Festival featuring Hawthorne Heights, Thrice, Alkaline Trio, Thursday, Touche Amore, Sleeping with Sirens, Bayside, Norma Jean, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Atreyu, Emery, Scary Kids Scaring Kids and more at Oak Canyon Park in Silverado, CA
Ohio might be for lovers, but California is definitely for emo music lovers. Ushering in the end of Summer 2023, the Hawthorne Heights-curated festival Is For Lovers finally made a stop in Orange County, California for a one-day, throwback emo experience known as California Is For Lovers. More than 15 rock acts played across two stages – with zero overlapping set times! – playing songs ranging from classic emo and screamo, to hard rock and alternative sounds. Headlining acts Alkaline Trio, Thrice, Atreyu, and Thursday were the undeniable heroes of the day, but they were only a sliver of the goodness that was California Is For Lovers.
Nestled in Silverado, the festival grounds were in Oak Canyon Park, a remote but shady oasis of big trees amongst a desert landscape. Because Oak Canyon Park had zero cell service, the whole day felt like a nostalgic throwback experience in many ways; not a lot of cell phones in the crowd, for one. Despite the nostalgic lineup, the ages of the crowd spanned multiple generations – with elder emos making up the biggest group – but plenty of young fans in their 20s made their presence known. The best of the crowd, however, were all the kids of the aforementioned elder emos, wearing big headphones and dancing in little Vans and black t-shirts.
Early to mid 2000s acts like Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Emery, and Further Seems Forever took their stages early, setting a great tone for the rest of the day. Lead singer Ronnie Winter of Red Jumpsuit gave a shoutout to everyone going through a tough time who did all they could to get out of bed today to come to the festival; he shared that 8 years ago he was having a really tough time and is happy to be alive to share his story. He was also the first of many musicians to reference high school that day, remarking, “People always say they used to listen to my band in high school. So here’s a song that I used to listen to in high school” right before playing “All The Small Things” by Blink 182.
Harder acts like Scary Kids Scaring Kids, Norma Jean, and Bayside drew great crowds with their head-banging songs; with every act, a mosh pit was created during the first song and only escalated through each set. At certain points, it felt like practically every person at the festival was either singing along or jumping in a mosh pit. An early highlight of the festival was, of course, the festival’s curators, Hawthorne Heights. Walking onstage to Phantom Planet’s iconic track “California,” the band immediately tore through classic tracks like “Saying Sorry,” “Silver Bullet,” and “Niki FM.” Lead singer J.T. Woodruff explained that every act at the festival was hand-picked by them – all their favorite bands – and those bands just had to agree to one thing: they were required to play “100% emo fucking bangers.” They closed their set with “Ohio Is For Lovers” and dozens of crowd surfers made their way through the crowd; it was a sight to behold.
Despite the nonstop entertainment, there was a lot more to see at the fest beyond music. In addition to plenty of bars and food stalls – none of which ever had crazy long lines – local vendors selling graphic t-shirts, witchy paraphernalia, and even emo outfits for kids and babies offered a cool outlet between sets. A pop-up makeup tent called “MySpace My Face” offered scene-style hair and makeup makeovers, as well as a big MySpace Top 8 backdrop for a fitting photo-op post makeover. Nearby sat “Dunk A Punk,” which saw various band members throughout the day sitting on a wobbly board waiting to be dropped in cold water by eager fans with good aim for the target.
The two festival stages were close enough that fans could still hear and enjoy the act on the opposite stage if they were waiting on the opposite barrier for their favorite band. The intimate layout gave VIP one large section between the stages, but offered a ton of stage space for the rest of GA – a move that felt more egalitarian than other recent festivals. Various band members from Hawthorne Heights, Emery, and Scary Kids Scaring Kids walked the grounds and took photos with fans – a festival experience that felt truly unmatched.
After Touche Amore put on their fully energized and electric set at the John Beatz stage, Sleeping With Sirens brought true rock star energy to the Casey Calvert stage. With at least a dozen fans crowdsurfing during the set’s first three songs alone, singer Kellin Quinn left a big impression with his falsetto vocals, microphone cord whipping, and lively dancing alongside guitarist Nick Martin and bassist Justin Hills. The biggest singalong of the set was smash hit, “Be Happy,” which featured lots of melodic guitar and the type of percussion you can’t help but headbang to.
Post-hardcore band Thursday ushered in the evening with a beautiful sunset during their sardonic set. Singer Geoff Rickly asked the crowd how many lovers were out there in the crowd only to announce that he wasn’t a lover but a hater. The New Jersey-natives laughed and thrashed during golden hour as crowdsurfers moved through the audience before getting dumped at the front of the stage, escorted out, and jumping into the crowd again. Not long after, metalcore legends Atreyu closed out the John Beatz stage with incredible production and unmatched enthusiasm. Nearly every band member was moving across the stage at all times; singer Brandon Saller, guitarists Dan Jacobs and Travis Miguel, and bassist Porter McKnight weaved in, out, and around each other so much that it felt like the space could barely contain them. The air felt electric around them and, at one point, someone brought out a box of donuts onstage as Saller commiserated that the whole day felt like an emotional homecoming reunion for the band. For the last song, Saller called for the creation of a “small but safe” pit for all the rockers kids out there looking to have fun, which the entire crowd instantly obliged.
Closing out the evening were hometown heroes Thrice and alternative legends Alkaline Trio. Thrice’s hard yet melodic songs were favorites of the night; the crowd sang along to lyrics and guitar melodies, packing in every corner in front of the stage compared to any other act. Despite celebrating the 20th anniversary of their third record The Artist in the Ambulance with tracks like “Silhouette” and “Under a Killing Moon,” Thrice also gave everyone a taste of new newer material like “Summer Set Fire To The Rain” – a track that sound just as good as songs they wrote two decades ago. Matt Skiba and the rest of Alkaline Trio closed out California Is For Lovers with a 15-song setlist that ranged from almost every single album and EP the band has ever put out. Despite having just recovered from the flu, Skiba alongside Dan Andriano and Atom Willard, put on a solid show that proved how professional and respected they are in the rock community.
California Is For Lovers may have been a festival for the nostalgic, but it delivered on much more than that; offering fans a whole day without the distraction of the outside world to witness more than 10 hours of nonstop music from all their favorite bands of the last 10 years is unparalleled. The execution and idea behind the festival proves that this audience is hungry for good music and a curated experience. Hats off to Hawthorne Heights – they pulled it off.