Rock on, melt off

First First Festival: It’s good to see River Walk Park put to such good use. The waterfront in West Sacramento has been in desperate need of a music festival to properly utilize its cozy space, and the inaugural First Festival this past Saturday did just that.

Live music was spread out between three stages, with vendors sprinkled between and food trucks parked above the park. The festival felt only moderately crowded—to be expected the first year—but First Festival organizer Danielle Vincent says approximately 3,000 people were in attendance. That’s quite a bit more than the initially anticipated 2,000, especially considering general admission tickets went from free to $15.

Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and there was quite a bit to do in the small space, like shop for jewelry, purses, soap, T-shirts and original artwork—all from local creators and boutique-owners. There was also a juggalo painting people’s faces, and a criminally underutilized silent disco, which never seemed to have more than one person dancing at any given moment.

Folk and rock dominated the lineup, with some punk, metal and hip-hop thrown in. Local favorite folk-rock quartet Be Brave Bold Robot played a mid-afternoon set. It was laid-back and lighthearted, with bassist Matt Gerken providing some lush harmonies. They played some older tunes as well as their newer, more eclectic songs, including their ode to Sacramento (“Too big to be a bubble / but small enough to keep us out of trouble”) and a lovely, educational tune about the manufacturing and production of maple syrup. Really.

Thick Soup later performed a great drumless Americana set, with excellent four-part harmonies and lots of crispy, old-timey string-pluckin’. Carly DuHain’s group Drop Dead Red played an energetic set of moody blues-rock. DuHain was the true star—her husky, soulful voice was emotionally stirring for all witnesses.

One of the biggest highlights of the day was main-stage support act Dylan Phillip, a young rapper who was backed by a live band bouncing between funky-jazzy beats, alt-rock jams and even a little bit of post-punk grooves. Phillip seemed almost unaware of the genre-shifting tunes, instead spitting rapid-fire verses at the edge of stage while barely taking a breath. He’s clearly got a lot of charisma and heart, and he drew a lot of attention from those still wandering around the festival.

According to First Festival’s Vincent, we can expect another edition in 2016—and she hopes it’ll be free.

—Aaron Carnes

Rock heaven: Ex Hex must have roared into Midtown like a fearsome motorcycle gang last Thursday night, but I missed the entrance. I just saw the band live on stage, peeling off white-hot guitar licks and shredding like the soundtrack to a thundering drag race—the sound blown up to arena size and then stuffed tightly into Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub.

Parked haphazardly at the corner of Thin Lizzy and .38 Special, it’s the revenge of pure, uncut rock ’n’ roll. Most of their songs ended with the band huddled around the drum kit, conjuring up majestic slabs of rebellious rock for a very dedicated crowd.

Ex Hex’s debut album Rips makes for a pleasant, tuneful romp through the garages of the ’70s—balanced muscle-car classic rock against punk minimalism. Live, it became something more visceral—something like the perfect rock ’n’ roll beast. Their encore cover of Sweet’s “Fox On The Run” couldn’t have made more sense.

Singer-guitarist Mary Timony is a familiar face to fans of indie rock as a member of Helium and Wild Flag, and she even contributed to the 2005 debut album by Sacto’s own Team Sleep. But Ex Hex is her coronation as an honest-to-god guitar hero. From opener “Don’t Wanna Lose” through Rips standouts “Beast” and “You Fell Apart,” it was her no-frills leads and buzz-saw rhythm playing that paved the way to rock ’n’ roll Valhalla. Bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris deserve special mentions for driving the bus like they stole it, with Wright making a solid attempt to steal the show with lead vocals on “How You Got That Girl,” a legit bass solo on “Beast” and my girlfriend awarding her the title of Hottest Member of Ex Hex. I honestly didn’t notice—my face was being melted off.

—Brian Breneman