Wonderfront, debuting this weekend, hopes to launch new template for music festivals
The three-day Wonderfront festival, headlined by Ben Harper, Miguel, Slightly Stoopid and several Rock Hall of Famers, will offer boats and water taxis to ferry fans from stage to stage
Talk about a long gestation period!
It’s been nearly a decade since longtime San Diego Sports Arena/Pechanga Arena San Diego general manager Ernie Hahn II had the idea to launch an ambitious, all-ages, multi-day music festival here.
For the record:
9:03 a.m. Nov. 21, 2019Joe Terzi was incorrectly identified in the original version of this article. He is the President and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, not the San Diego Tourism Marketing District.
One of his key goals was to build on the 25-year legacy of Street Scene, which began in 1984 and helped transform downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter from a then largely moribund area into a vibrant night-and-day destination. By coincidence, Street Scene, which ceased to exist after its 2009 edition, is also cited as a key inspiration by the founders of both the KAABOO and CRSSD festivals, both of which this year celebrated their fifth anniversaries.
This weekend, Hahn’s dream will become a reality with the debut of the Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival, which bills itself as “a party where the city meets the sea.”
To be held Friday through Sunday on seven main stages and five smaller “activation stages,” the three-day music marathon will feature 130 acts performing at sites alongside San Diego Bay downtown. (See below for a map of the festival area, stages, transportation pick-up and drop-off points, and more.)
The three-day music marathon will feature everyone from Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, Los Tucanes de Tijuana and MGMT to hip-hop favorites Migos, the Ocean Beach-bred jam band Slightly Stoopid and a one-time-only “Guitar Legends” group that includes ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons, Toto’s Steve Lukather, Heart’s Nancy Wilson and Allman Brothers Band alum Warren Haynes.
“Street Scene was about San Diegans doing an event for San Diegans, in the heart of San Diego,” said Hahn, who proudly notes that most of the performances on Wonderfront’s five “activation stages” are free of charge to the public. Paid tickets are required to attend performances on the festival’s seven main stages, four of which are located in close proximity to each other at Embracadero Marina Park North and the adjacent Seaport Vilage.
“What we’re doing,” Hahn continued, “is activating the bay, downtown and the Gaslamp Quarter, all combined as one.
“We want this to be for all of San Diego.”
Indeed, Wonderfront will apparently be the first major music festival in the nation at which attendees can travel between stages by water, as well as by foot and via Old Town Trolley-styled shuttle buses, electric scooters and more.
The festival’s northern-most and southern-most bay-side stages — located, respectively, at Broadway Port Pier and Hilton Bayfront Park — will be accessible via several several boats that will shuttle attendees at no extra charge.
They are being provided by Flagship Cruises & Events, one of Wonderfront’s partners. The vessels range from the 400-capacity, two-deck Marietta, which will feature on-board performances by an array of San Diego-based bands, to the far more intimate Balboa and Glorietta, which have a capacity of just 34 people each.
The 600-capacity, three-deck California Spirit, which will be docked at Broadway Pier all weekend, will host the American Comedy Co. Stage and offer a rooftop deck view of performances on the Belly Up Casbah Music Box Stage. It will also be the site of nightly 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. after-parties, as well as serve breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. The 150-capacity, three-deck California Princess, which will be docked near Hilton Bayfront Park, will house a two-floor casino and a top-deck DJ dance party.
“I think this will be great branding for us,” said Tim Rongley, director of marketing for Flagship Cruises & Events.
“Even though this is the inaugural Wonderfront event, with (a) 30,000 (attendance cap), it will go to 50,000 next year and more after that. Getting involved the first year will make us an integral part of the festival and we expect to continue that partnership in the years to come.
“With the amount of people that will be down here on the Embarcadero for the festival, it will be great for restaurants, hotels and all the other attractions along the waterfront. The event covers a long stretch of San Diego, so it’s great for lots of businesses here.”
That view is shared by the San Diego Tourism Authority, which is providing $500,000 in underwriting for Wonderfront, and by the San Diego Unified Port District, which is providing value-in-kind support and providing free office space.
As was the case at Street Scene (in its later years before the festival largely outgrew the same Gaslamp Quarter it helped revive), Wonderfront ticketholders will be able to leave and re-enter the festival grounds at will — a move that should help promote nearby city attractions.
“The reason Wonderfront is getting this much support from us is because we see it as a great building opportunity,” said San Diego Tourism Authority President & CEO Joe Terzi.
“We have committed to using our significant resources to help market Wonderfront as an event, mostly in Southern California, but also in Arizona and Las Vegas. Maybe Wonderfront can grow like KAABOO, Coachella and other music festivals that have really helped the (host) cities.”
By design, the multi-million dollar, rain-or-shine Wonderfront is being held on what is traditionally one of the slowest weekends of the year for tourism in San Diego. After a wet midweek, the weather forecast for this weekend is for dry skies and pleasant temperatures.
“This has been eight years in the making, so it will be very emotional for me come Sunday night,” said Hahn, who has teamed up to with Paul Thornton, the founder of Texas-based Tag Presents. Thornton’s company has produced ESPN X Games Austin and Fan Fest Austin, among other events.
Yet, while Wonderfront’s headlining artists are well-known entities, the festival’s emphasis is not just on established acts. Also set to perform are Nicky Jam, Ximena Sariñana, Broods, Grandma, Bryce Vine, Parquet Courts, German-born pop dynamo Alice Merton, Guatemala’s Rocío “La Dama de La Cumbia” y Su Sonora and a good number of other rising young acts. The lineup includes a significant number of Latin music performers, the better to reflect San Diego’s diverse population and proximity to Mexico.
“A big facet of this festival is that you can discover great new music, if you show up early Saturday or Sunday,” Hahn noted.
“And if you get tired and want a break, you can go back to your (downtown) hotel or eat at a nearby restaurant. Paul and I firmly believe that what we’re doing with Wonderfront represents a fundamental change in how you should expect to watch a music festival, and in how you can discover and learn about new music. "
Wonderfront’s broad range of performers is readily apparent, even without — at least this year — any of the zydeco, Cajun, straight-ahead jazz or World Music acts that helped put Street Scene on the map. The lineup also includes DJ Z-Trip, who will accompany San Diego legend Tony Hawk and other top skateboarders as they perform gravity-defying feats on Saturday and Sunday.
Hawk is one of Wonderfront’s four high-profile “ambassadors” and investors. The others are surfing icon Rob Machado, who will perform at the festival with his band; former San Diego Padres relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman, who is a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer; and genre-blurring vocal star Miguel, who is also one of Wonderfront’s headlining performers.
The challenge now for Wonderfront, which is generally geared to a younger, less affluent audience than KAABOO, is to establish itself in an increasingly competitive national festival market.
“We’re encouraged,” Hahn said.
“We’re selling tickets and have lots of interest. At the same time, explaining our vision to everybody takes a while. What we’re doing has never been done before in San Diego before, and that makes it exciting and one hell of a challenge.
“I’ve just got to get people here to see it. Once you’re here, I truly believe it will be an experience like no other you’ve seen.”
Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival
When: 3:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and 11:45 a.m. to 10 p.m Saturday and Sunday
Where: On seven main stages and five smaller “activation stages,” alongside San Diego Bay, between Broadway Port Pier and Hilton Bayfront Park. The festival’s four biggest stages are located in close proximity to each other at Embarcadero Marina Park South and Seaport Village.
Tickets: Admission to most events at the activation stages is free. Single-day tickets for performances at the seven main stages are $79 Friday and $99 Saturday and Sunday. Three-day general admission passes are $239, while three-day VIP passes are $1,200. Single-day VIP tickets cost $375 Friday and $475 Saturday and Sunday. Three-day general admission passes for active-duty military members with ID is $199. The main box office is located at Seaport Village, 839 West Harbor Drive and is now open. Two other box offices, at the Broadway Pier and Hilton Bayfront Park festival entrances, will open at 10 a.m. Friday.
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