The highs and lows of Wonderfront Music and Arts Festival


Nestled along the San Diego Bay and just a short ferry ride from Coronado Island, Seaport Village and Marina Park have played host to the Wonderfront Music and Arts Festival since its inception in 2019. Despite a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, another hiatus in 2023, and shifting from fall to spring, the festival returned with a lineup that included hip hop, EDM, country, pop, and indie rock. The three-day, all-ages event featured five stages, a jam area complete with instruments for all to play, a reset-relaxation zone, and no expenses were spared on brand activations. There were also free, public concerts outside the festival grounds, which welcomed 41,000 attendees over three days. 

The enthusiastic early arrivals quickly learned that the in-and-out privileges were not just nice but a much-needed necessity because the dining options left much to be desired. Day one of the festival saw multiple stages marred with technical issues. Allan Rayman‘s set perhaps took most of these issues with constant mic feedback and the tech crew fiddling around with on-stage amplifiers throughout his set. 

Despite the tech issues and the sparse crowd, Rayman’s performance persevered all that was stacked up against his early set. Decked out in a white t-shirt branded after his latest record release, The All Allan Hour, he worked through a series of songs from his latest record and a handful of early fan favourites like “Madhouse,” “Tennessee,” and “13“. Rayman’s performances are very animated and tend to draw you into the narrative, so to no surprise by the second half of his set the grassy patches were packed with the nodding crowds who followed the sound from across the park and past the still inactive brand booths.

Sudan Archives was next on this mid-sized stage and by now the sound issues have been mostly resolved. Accompanied by her violin and dressed in a striking, skin-tight, one-piece bodysuit Brittney Denise Parks gave a captivating midday set. Sudan Archives, who effortlessly blends experimental R&B with traditional African music, energetically performed some of her most popular music from the Athena and Natural Brown Prom Queen albums. 

As the afternoon wore on, T-Pain, who had just arrived at the festival 20 minutes before his set due to travel issues, brought his blend of autotune, R&B, and hip-hop to one of the two main stages. The singer and rapper began his set performing a string of his features before shifting into songs from his discography, such as “Buy You A Drank, “I’m In Love With A Stripper” and “I’m Sprung“. Known for his dancing abilities and playful stage presence, the talented artist gave one of the more memorable performances this Friday.

The constant flow of electronic music at Wonderfront can always be found at the BMP Sessions Electric Lounge. Tucked away behind various activations the stage was fully walled off from the rest of the festival. Attendees lounged on couches, bean bags, and rugs spread around the area all directed up at the tropically themed stage with the DJ set deep into the weeds. Mer Bear and Loesch were the dance highlights sampling the old house classics and remixing the radio favourites (like “Sweet Disposition”).

As the sun began its descent the festival grounds buzzed with anticipation for Brooklyn native Joey Bada$$. From the beginning of his hour-long set to the end, fans rapped along, word-for-word, to the likes of “Temptation” and “Paper Trail”. Despite his mic and sound being too low, Joey Bada$$ effortlessly reminded everyone why he is a critically acclaimed lyricist. 

Taking to the stage immediately following Joey Bada$$ was JID, who proceeded to give a lyrical masterclass with his intricate wordplay and blend of the hip-hop sound of “old” and “new”. JID’s lyrical finesse was so poignant and expressive that I unconsciously found myself frowned up – in a good way – and yelling, “That man is spittin’!” during his performances of “Crack Sandwich,” “Dance Now,” and “Workin’ Out”. 

Producer, songwriter, and DJ extraordinaire Kaytranada was set to close out the festival Friday. Elevated above the stage with a multitude of bright lights spotlighting the artist this performance looked promising to the eye. Sadly, the tech issues continued through his set, and with the record-breaking attendance of mixed-age fans chatting up a storm it was impossible to hear Kaytranada unless you were standing in the moshpit by the stage. His set sounded low and isolated, like a mutated YouTube performance in the other room.  Typically, Kaytranada’s music makes one want to dance and sing along but today through no fault of his own Kaytranada’s set was hard to enjoy.

But with the new day came a new set of performances and a new set of fans. Legendary reggae band Steel Pulse has the ability to connect with audiences across generations through their music and these fans came out on Saturday ready to play. The hot afternoon sun made an appearance creating an ideal atmosphere for a reggae performance. Steel Pulse took to the stage ten minutes later than scheduled due to a few more technical issues but once the music started flowing it didn’t stop. Performing some of their most timeless songs like,  “Your House,” “Steppin’ Out,” and “Rally Round,” Steel Pulse reminded attendees how influential music is in bringing people together, uplifting positivity, and speaking out against injustice. Steel Pulse was a deeply appreciated segway into The Roots. 

To no surprise, The Roots delivered perhaps the best performance of the entire weekend – with Steel Pulse coming in a close second, of course. The band is notorious for not shortchanging fans during live shows as they perform the entirety of any given song, not a shortened version like many artists do. Their hour-long set included the likes of “The Next Movement,” “The Seed,” and “You’ve Got Me” – all performed in their entirety and some even extended versions. The latter of which the lead singing vocals were sung by guitarist Captain Kirk who interweaved covers of Sade, Donna Summer, Led Zeppelin, and Ini Kamoze into the song along with his guitar solo extending the song to nearly ten minutes. 

The Roots are storytellers by nature. Each instrument, including Black Thoughts’ lyrical prowess, tells its own story that, in turn, contributes holistically to the broader story. Each instrumentalist was given an opportunity to shine in the spotlight through various solos and each story (song)  transitioned to the next effortlessly and smoothly, with no breaks. Performing for 60 minutes under the warm California sun, The Roots set celebrated the music that laid their foundation: jazz, hip hop, R&B, soul, blues, and funk. 

BMP Sessions Electric Lounge continued the good vibes rolling throughout the weekend with rhythmic sets by Lincoln Jesser and the non-stop dance tracks by Future is Golor Takeover featuring DJ Xica Soul and Luen.

While on one side of the park, folks were singing along to Beck for many the weekend came to a blissful end with a chill set by Norway’s Orions Belte who lulled us into the evening with their instrumental performance.

Looking back at Wonderfront Music Festival the lineup was certainly the biggest highlight, but the way the festival grounds became too tight for the people present on day one immediately took away from the experience. Paired with the technical issues that came and went with different acts, some sets felt completely lost in the noise.

And then, of course, there was the food that was somehow under and over cooked all at the same time; no shade to the vendors as they did not seem set up for success. However, the astronomical price markup of these quick meals did not stand a chance to what was available in the nearby restaurants.

Wonderfront came with high promises and expectations but somehow failed to live up to most of them. So, here is to hoping that next year the focus will be as strong on ensuring quality sound and guest experience as it was on taking the attendees for their hard-earned money.

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