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Concert Reviews

Just Like Heaven Festival – Indie Rock Bliss in Southern California

Just Like Heaven Festival 2023

As the sun was setting over the Rose Bowl on May 13, nostalgic indie rock filled the Southern California air. Just Like Heaven, the single-day indie rock festival was in full swing across two stages in Pasadena’s canyons. The day was filled with sunshine and legends of the indie scene, punctuated by a visceral performance from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to close out the night. 

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Just Like Heaven Festival, 5/13/23. Photo by Joseph Buscarello

When the lineup was announced, Just Like Heaven instantly became one of the most interesting draws of the season. Single-day, genre-specific festivals are thriving in the modern music festival industry. At just over $125, festival-goers get a full day of music dedicated to a streamlined sound they love. 

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Now in its third year after the inaugural edition in 2019, Just Like Heaven is really coming into its own. After a couple years off during the pandemic, the festival defied the odds and made a successful return in 2022. Located just outside of the Rose Bowl Stadium at the Brookside Golf Club, the festival indeed feels like heaven in the beautiful SoCal landscape. The rolling hills of the golf course provided great sight lines all over the grounds, and sprawling trees littered the grounds with shade. 

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Just Like Heaven Festival, 5/13/23. Photo by Joseph Buscarello

Nearly all of the acts on the 2023 lineup fit a certain mold; indie sleaze bands that were at the forefront of the genre in the early 2000s but are still creating new and exciting music today. Insert the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not only is the band celebrating the 20th anniversary of their timeless debut album Fever To Tell, but the group is still touring strong behind their excellent 2022 LP Cool It Down. The trio’s latest record is every bit as exciting and creative as anything in their catalog.

Early on in the set, Yeah Yeah Yeahs played “Art Star.” Karen O described the song from their 2002 self-titled EP as “a deep fucking cut” as the crowd eagerly sang along to one of the songs that started it all for the band. Dressed in a flowing, layered red dress and a boxer-style belt adorned with a glittery “KO,” Karen O had the crowd wrapped around her finger during their performance. She commanded the audience with ease as they cruised through a career spanning setlist with effortless grace.

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Before a resounding performance of “Maps,” Karen O led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” for her husband. The penultimate song of the night was a bumping rendition of “Heads Will Roll;” truly a perfect festival song. The infectious chorus “Off, off with your head/Dance, dance ‘till you’re dead” sent the crowd into a frenzy, jumping to the beat of the track and shaking the hills of the golf course. “Date With The Night,” the raw punk rock banger and Fever To Tell standout, closed out the night along with Karen O destroying her microphone on stage in classic punk fashion. 

Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ allure aside, Just Like Heaven drew fans to Pasadena for more than just the headliner. The day also featured a stunning, front to back performance of MGMT’s iconic debut Oracular Spectacular. The duo’s set at Just Like Heaven marked their first gig in over four years. However, the production and showmanship was so well choreographed it went well beyond a traditional return to the live stage. The show started with an interpretive dance routine by a mysterious sextet dressed in white before Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser even came on stage for those infectious opening notes of “Time To Pretend.” While the instrumentals played in the background, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser came to the very edge of the stage, and sang along to the track with the audience, creating a feeling of unity with the fans as we all appreciated the iconic song. 

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MGMT Dance Group, Just Like Heaven Festival, 5/13/23. Photo by Joseph Buscarello

As MGMT rolled through their set, the theatrical performance kept revealing new layers. The boys played floor hockey during the outro of “Electric Feel,” a choir came on stage to add lush backing vocals for “The Handshake” and “Future Reflections,” and the dancers returned at the end, wearing giant paper mache heads, comically dancing in the background. These bits of theater really amplified the album experience. After listening to a record for 15 years, it’s hard to be surprised when hearing it live unless there are twists and turns along the way. A full album performance typically comes with some surprise songs after the end of the album. Die hard fans were treated to “Love Always Remains” which was dusted off for the first live spin since 2005! 

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The rest of the lineup for this year’s festival was a who’s who of iconic indie rock bands. The Bravery marked their return to the stage with a fun set featuring “Believe” and “An Honest Mistake.” They also announced the news that a new album is in the works. Metronomy dazzled the crowd early with their signature, multi-vocalist sound. STRFKR sent wave after wave of crowd surfing astronauts into the audience. Meanwhile, Azealia Banks rocked the house with her sultry blend of rap and hip-hop. Sam Herring of Future Islands used every square millimeter of the stage, putting his entire body into a performance of their hit song “Seasons (Waiting On You).” 

As the sun started to set, the rock and roll leaning groups gave way to dance floor-infused sounds. Hot Chip closed out their set with the driving techno beats of “Over And Over.” M83, on the other hand, played nearly all of their latest LP Fantasy. They finished up their night with another song suited for a music festival in “Midnight City.”

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One of the true competitions for the audience’s attention came via Empire Of The Sun vs. Caribou. Festivals always present some tough choices for fans, but idobi couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch Caribou’s live set. The four-piece group perfected an intricate, jam-like performance that sees them going in and out of their indie rock and experimental house sounds with masterful transitions. They were one of the only bands to really expand on the festival’s lighting production, creating a mesmerizing spectacle that captivated the crowd and sprawled out from the stage over them. 

A sight that popped up everywhere you looked were small children on their parent’s shoulders; ear muffs on and spirits high. Just Like Heaven has a laser focus on the indie rock scene that began in the early 00s and many from that generation are now parents trying to show their kids the music that defined their youth. It’s a cycle as old as music itself, creating new generations of fans as the years go by. Many of these bands will release new music in the coming years that will be celebrated by old and new fans alike. 

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The 2023 edition of Just Like Heaven was a major success; both in attendance and execution. The beautiful weather and awe-inspiring setting, flawless execution of the schedule, and lively atmosphere from the fans made for an immensely fun experience. There is no doubt that Just Like Heaven will return next year. What bands are going to surge between now and then to earn top spots on the 2024 poster?

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Just Like Heaven Festival, 5/13/23. Photo by Joseph Buscarello
 
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