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Wonderfront festival’s 2022 edition a crowd-pleaser, but crowd’s size down by nearly half from 2019 debut

Gwen Stefani performs at the Wonderfront Festival on Sunday, November 20, 2022
Gwen Stefani headlined the Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival on Sunday. Her energetic set included the most memorable introduction of the weekend. “This song,” she said, “makes me want to throw up!”
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Headliners included Gwen Stefani, Kings of Leon and Zac Brown Band, but bayside festival lost momentum after two-year pandemic delay

If the San Diego Tourism Board needs an enticing new off-season marketing campaign, video footage of the closing day of the 2022 Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival — where the early Sunday afternoon temperature hit 75 degrees under clear blue skies — could be just the ticket.

But leave out the fog that rolled in as Kings of Leon concluded its electrifying headlining set Saturday night, when the temperature dipped into the low 50s, nearly 10 degrees below the average here for this time of year.

That fog, figuratively speaking, also cast an unanticipated pall over Wonderfront, a young festival with enormous future potential and some major growing pains in the here and now.

The notably cooler evening weather may have discouraged some potential attendees from coming to the three-day Wonderfront, which drew 57,000 people to its 2019 debut but was shuttered in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thundercat performs at the Wonderfront Festival on Sunday, November 20, 2022
Thundercat is shown during his Sunday performance at Wonderfront.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s also possible the headlining acts at the bayside downtown event — Zac Brown Band on Friday, Kings of Leon on Saturday, Gwen Stefani on Sunday — did not have nearly as much mass audience appeal as Wonderfront’s producers hoped, although all three delivered crowd-pleasing performances.

The solo star and No Doubt co-founder headlines the three-day event on Sunday. Kings of Leon and Zac Brown Band are this weekend’s other headliners

So did such acts as Young the Giant and country-music fireball Lainey Wilson on Friday, the golden-voiced Lauren Daigle and the jazzy-funk-fueled Goldfish on Saturday, and hip-hop dynamos Big Boi and Schoolboy Q on Sunday.

Regardless, the loss of momentum and lower turnout for this ambitious homegrown event was undeniable, with this year’s 30,000 attendance marking a nearly 50 percent decline from 2019. And while Wonderfront co-founder Ernie Hahn vowed that the festival will return next year, he acknowledged steps are needed to “dramatically boost” attendance numbers for the 2023 edition.

After completing 25 years as the arena’s general manager, he is focusing on his three-day bayside festival, which returns in November, and new company, Dream Hahn

“We want to really elevate the Wonderfront experience, especially for our VIP packages,” Hahn told the San DIego Union-Tribune Monday afternoon. “And we certainly have a ways to get to where my vision is on how Wonderfront becomes everything and all things San Diego.”

With four of its biggest stages this year located at Embarcadero Marina Park North, Seaport Village and nearby Ruocco Park, the festival’s setting could not be more quintessentially San Diegan.

“I just love being right by the ocean, hearing all the headliners and new acts. It’s such a beautiful setting,” said Point Loma resident ReNee Greenberg, who attended the festival all three days despite having had knee surgery two weeks ago.

The three-day festival resumed Friday after debuting in 2019, then being postponed for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic

“It’s great!” agreed said Amanda Balcik, a fifth-grade teacher from Mesa, Ariz., who attended with her husband, Bryan. “This is our first time at Wonderfront. We will for sure come back.”

The execution of Wonderfront was admirably smooth for the most part. There were few delays between performances, lines for food and beverages were manageable, and audience members could easily walk throughout the venue, in part because of the lower-than-hoped-for attendance.

The festival’s 2022 edition was more centralized, compact and user-friendly. Credit the decision to eliminate the 2019 event’s two most distant stages at the Broadway Pier and Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel.

However, doing so reduced the capacity for this year’s Wonderfront, noted festival co-producer Paul Thornton.

“So, apples to apples, (we had) pretty similar attendance (this year),” he said. “Plus, (we gave out) lots more comp tickets in 2019, like you do with first-year festivals. This year (we gave out) much less with more limited capacity. Our gross sales on tickets were 27 percent higher this year than 2019.”

Thornton did not provide daily attendance for the 2022 Wonderfront, but said the biggest crowd came Saturday, followed by Sunday. Friday had the lowest attendance, possibly because having three country-music artists — Brown, Wilson and Cam — on the festival’s main stage that night was a miscalculation for a two-year-old event that was country-free in 2019.

Performances by Migos, Miguel, Ben Harper, Los Tucanes de Tijuana bolster first edition of new San Diego festival, which drew 56,000 people to multiple outdoor stages alongside San Diego Bay

In addition, some of this year’s performers might be better suited to a Las Vegas showroom, most notably the vocally gifted but artistically vapid R&B singer Max and the band Soja, whose slick, edge-free music is to reggae music what Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ decaffeinated raps are to hip-hop.

To talent-curator Thornton’s credit, some of the least-known Wonderfront artists delivered some of the most memorable performances, notably singer-songwriter Trevor Hall and 26-year-old R&B singer Tai Verdes.

That doesn’t minimize how disappointing the festival’s decline in attendance is for Thornton, Hahn and the event’s financial supporters, which include the City of San Diego Tourism Marketing District Assessment Funds.

But the fact Wonderfront resumed and was so well-produced, if not attended, after its two-year hiatus is more than encouraging.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown began in early 2020, a number of large-, small- and medium-sized annual music festivals — including some that were well established
— have permanently shuttered on both sides of the Atlantic. One of them appears to be KAABOO, which was held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds from 2015 to 2019, then announced a 2020 move to Petco Park that never materialized and is now mired in multiple lawsuits.

The fate of the dormant upscale music festival, which is mired in litigation in several states, remains unclear. Some ticketholders have gone two years seeking, but failing to obtain, refunds

Wonderfront has had a comparatively less bumpy ride — even with a two-year delay.

“It’s tough to relaunch three years after your first year and rebrand,” Hahn said.

“A lot of festivals didn’t make it through the pandemic, so the fact that Wonderfront happened again is a testament to a lot of hard work and our ownership group, without which this year wouldn’t have happened. We have opportunities to improve and we’ll definitely get better.”

For the dozen or so randomly selected attendees that this reporter spoke with at the festival over the weekend, Wonderfront’s appeal did not appear to be in question.

“I really like the atmosphere. It has that San Diego feel and is very family-friendly,” said Menifee resident Lisa Rodriguez on Sunday. She attended two of Wonderfront’s three days with her husband, J.J.

“Seaport Village and the Embarcadero are big San Diego attractions,” she continued, “and having this festival here just makes it better.”

“This is really cool,” agreed Point Loma resident Greenberg, a Minnesota native.

“I went to KAABOO in Del Mar for three years, but did not do the VIP thing like I am here. I loved hearing the Zac Brown Band and Young the Giant.”

Greenberg also praised the music she heard performed on the Spirit of San Diego, the two-decker ship that enhances Wonderfront’s nautical flavor.

“I’ll definitely be back next year,” she said.

Will Greenberg attend KAABOO, should it return?

“I thought,” she replied, “this was replacing KAABOO.”


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