Riding the Wave: How the Pearl Jam-Fronted Ohana Festival Kept Growing During a Pandemic

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A year ago, organizers of the annual Ohana Festival in Dana Point, Calif., were stuck in their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic instead of rocking out on the beach for the planned three days of performances by Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, Kings Of Leon, My Morning Jacket, Maggie Rogers and the Pretenders. So it came as a pleasant surprise to all involved that after a year’s postponement, not only did Ohana roar back to life with two headlining sets by Vedder and another by Pearl Jam, it actually grew into a second “encore” weekend headlined by Pearl Jam, setting the stage for further expansion in the future.

“When we re-announced the festival in May, it quickly sold out and we found ourselves in a unique spot where Pearl Jam was available. We worked hand in hand with the stage and the city of Dana Point and were able to lock in a second weekend quickly,” Live Nation’s regional head of talent for California, Rich Best, tells Variety. “Our approach has been slow and steady — grow organically and never compromise the fan or the artist. In our fifth year, we couldn’t be prouder.”

More from Variety

Ohana, a partnership between Live Nation, Vedder and Pearl Jam manager Mark Smith, debuted in 2016 on a 14,500-capacity stretch of Dana Point beach. While Vedder has headlined every prior year solo, this was the first time he played there with his new solo band as well as with Pearl Jam. “It was an incredible day today of music, artistry and musicianship, and to do it here, fueled by the breezes off the ocean, it has just been like a perfect wave,” Vedder said on Saturday.

Pearl Jam at Ohana Festival weekend 2 - Credit: Michael Kravetsky
Pearl Jam at Ohana Festival weekend 2 - Credit: Michael Kravetsky

Michael Kravetsky

As previously reported, organizers were thrown for a loop hours before the Sept. 24 start of weekend one, when headliners Kings Of Leon pulled out to be with their ailing mother, who died the next morning. Before Best had time to make a contingency plan, he learned Vedder had already spoken by phone to one of Kings Of Leon’s Followill brothers and had decided to add a last-minute set with his solo band to fill Kings Of Leon’s slot. “There’s such a longstanding, deep relationship between the two bands that I was not surprised,” Best says. “That is family. That is Ohana.”

Indeed, the communal vibes ran deep throughout both weekends, with many artists such as My Morning Jacket, Glen Hansard, Brandi Carlile and Sleater-Kinney having strong prior connections with Vedder and/or Pearl Jam. White Reaper made its third appearance at the event, after having been the first band to ever perform on the main stage at Ohana shortly after gates opened back in 2016. Numerous acts performed impromptu with one another on stage, with Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron winning the MVP award by playing four different times on Oct. 2 (with Joe Wong and the Nite Creatures, NHC and Carlile before Pearl Jam’s show-closing set).

“When it comes to artist curation, Eddie is very hands-on,” says Best. “He often has a list of things he would like to see. The overwhelming theme is that we only book bands that get what we’re trying to create. Egos are left at the door. It is communal backstage. Our lineups are diverse, with a mix of new bands and classics. We could not be more proud to have some of the most badass women grace our stages. That comes from the top — that’s Eddie Vedder.”

Both weekends, Carlile saluted her Seattle roots by welcoming Cameron and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready for a set-closing cover of Soundgarden’s “Searching With My Good Eye Closed.” “It’s an absolute dream to be in this beautiful place with y’all,” said Carlile, who was also celebrating the Friday release of her new album, “In These Silent Days.”

According to Vedder, Beck had so much fun after his set on Friday that he came back the next day just to hang out and watch music. On Friday, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament played bass during Josh Klinghoffer’s first live performance as Pluralone (Klinghoffer also played four other times throughout the festival: twice each with Vedder’s solo band and Pearl Jam). Tim Robbins and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein were seen walking and talking backstage, while Hawkins said he discovered after chatting with Vedder that both of them had learned to surf as teenagers on the same Dana Point beach that surrounds the festival site.

Beck performs at Ohana Festival - Credit: Michael Kravetsky
Beck performs at Ohana Festival - Credit: Michael Kravetsky

Michael Kravetsky

In its first public performance on Saturday, NHC offered a veritable who’s who of ‘90s alternative rock, as Foo Fighters members Taylor Hawkins and Pat Smear and Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro and Chris Chaney rocked out on a handful of originals plus covers of Queen’s “Keep Yourself Alive” (with Cameron swapping for Hawkins on drums) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “My Friends,” a nod to Navarro’s brief mid-‘90s stint in that group made all the more unique by featuring the Peppers’ Chad Smith onstage behind the kit.

Pearl Jam wrapped the festival on Saturday with the longest of the four shows it has played since breaking a three-year hiatus Sept. 18 at the Sea.Hear.Now festival in Asbury Park, N.J. The 24-song, 132-minute set deftly balanced new songs from 2020’s “Gigaton” (“Dance of the Clairvoyants,” “Quick Escape,” “Take the Long Way”) with ‘90s classics (“Once,” “Black,” “Last Exit”) and the usual helping of fan-favorite rarities (“Smile,” “Wasted Reprise”/“Life Wasted,” the “No Code”-era outtake “All Night”). Carlile sang with Vedder on Pearl Jam’s cover of her song “Again Today,” which the band recorded for a 2017 charity tribute album. A stage full of guests, including Smith, Hawkins, Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, producer Andrew Watt, surf legend Kelly Slater and tennis star John McEnroe and his wife Patty Smyth, joined Pearl Jam to close the show with a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

At a time when large-scale festivals are still slowly returning, Best says both Ohana’s beautiful beachfront setting and Live Nation’s strict COVID protocols were key to pulling off a safe and successful event. “Certainly [being] outdoors has helped us navigate the waters through a slightly different lens, but by no means does that mean we treat it any differently,” he says. “The safety of our fans, our staff and our artists leads every decision we make.”

What’s more, this year’s edition proved Ohana could sustain two weekends, which has Best excited for what could lie ahead. “Mark, Eddie and I are kind of feeling this ‘encore’ vibe,” he says, referring to the success of this year’s bonus weekend. “You might see that again.” While Ohana looks likely to return to Dana Point next year, it could eventually wash ashore on some other beach. “After 2022,” Best says, “maybe we look at it in another beautiful location near a beach with great waves, some place in the world.”

Pearl Jam performs at Ohana Festival weekend 2 - Credit: Michael Kravetsky
Pearl Jam performs at Ohana Festival weekend 2 - Credit: Michael Kravetsky

Michael Kravetsky

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting