Stage at Wonderfront
A stage at Wonderfront in San Deigo. Courtesy of the festival

The inaugural Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival bowed Nov. 22-24 alongside San Diego’s picturesque bayfront. The question on everybody’s minds, though, is was the three-day event wonder-ful?

Simply put, it was what one might expect for a first-time major event: partly good to great; partly in need of improvement. But I think most of the 56,000-plus attendees would likely agree that Wonderfront was a worthy addition to the city’s flourishing music fest lineup, next to KAABOO and CRSSD.

Let’s start with the venue. The event’s seven main music stages were disbursed from Broadway Pier on the north to Hilton Bayfront Park on the south, a distance of 1.3 miles. While four stages were clustered in the Embarcadero North and South and Seaport Village areas, the tight schedule made it difficult to get from one of these stages to an outlier in time. It certainly required attendees to make a choice: miss the ending of the first act or the beginning of the next.

Though event organizers attempted to facilitate getting from point A to B with numerous options ranging from street shuttles and water taxis to pedicabs and scooters, coordinating the commute was challenging.

For example, in order to make the 4:30 p.m. departure of the Marietta — a large, double-decker boat featuring a one-man band on the bottom level, expansive views of San Diego’s skyline on the top, and cocktail bars on both — I had to leave Moon Taxi’s set on Broadway Pier about four songs before its finish in order to make it back to the Embarcadero in time to catch most of Tribal Seeds’ 4:45 show.

Fortunately (for me at least), many of the acts I wanted to see were performing on side-by-side stages. Upon arriving, concertgoers were probably surprised to see Uncle Ed’s D*mn Good Vodka and C3bank stages situated right next to each other. What they soon learned is that only one would be in use at a time. So, while Phantogram (one of the weekend’s standout performances) was playing on one, roadies were setting up for Thievery Corporation on the other. Not only did the bands and crews operate like clockwork, the convenience of segueing from one crowd into the other was unlike any other music fest I’ve attended (though I understand Lollapalooza takes this approach). The concept is rather genius and, though duplicated with the Stella Artois and KUSI stages at Seaport Village, I wished they had followed suit throughout the venue.

Wonderfront’s lineup, while eclectic, skewed more toward lesser-known, emerging bands than well-established, career artists. Headliners such as Miguel and Migos drew the expected large crowds but acts like Bob Moses and Manchester Orchestra (another powerful fest highlight) attracted more modest audiences. And several performances were unfortunately subject to spotty sound, which seemed more prominent on Friday. In fact, a rightfully disappointed Miguel had to pause his show until they fixed the mix.

Another one of Wonderfront’s novelties was allowing in-and-out privileges. With most music fests, once you’re in, you can’t leave. The thinking behind this was to allow out-of-towners the opportunity to explore the city. It also enabled locals to go home and return later, as well as helped keep things flowing inside the venue; though Saturday, certainly the busiest of the three days, was pretty packed.

All in all, the first outing of Wonderfront proved that it could peacefully co-exist with other local music fests. During Michael Franti & Spearhead’s Friday night performance at Embarcadero North, I caught myself taken as much with the surrounding skyline as the artist’s high-energy set. It is a special venue that – with some refinements – has the potential to make Wonderfront a San Diego mainstay.

Some recommendations for Wonderfront in 2020:

  • Organizers should better train event staff (they often either didn’t know where stages were or misdirected me), put in more visible signage and improve their maps (one of the entire footprint prominently featuring each of the stages would be very helpful)
  • They should consider tightening up the space. Perhaps the area behind the convention center, now under construction, would be another ideal spot for two side-by-side stages next year
  • If they can shrink the footprint, maybe they could do away with the water taxis and Marietta as modes of transportation between outlier stages and utilize another large boat for hour-long sets on the bay; in essence serving as another, moving stage
  • With one successful event under their belt, I’m hopeful organizers can attract talent more on par with KAABOO (which moves downtown next year), and offer even more diversity, including underrepresented classic rock, soul/R&B, and country

Donovan Roche has covered the world of music for the past 30 years. Send your story idea to