After a two-year, pandemic-prompted hiatus, the Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival returned to downtown’s scenic waterfront for its sophomore outing Nov. 18-20. While it felt like not much had changed since its 2019 debut, there were noticeable advancements this year and areas where the still-fledgling three-day fest can improve.
Featuring more than 80 bands on eight stages (inclusive of one on the Spirit of San Diego Flagship vessel Marietta), Wonderfront has much to offer spread across an approximate 1.5-mile footprint. If you came to see headliners like Gwen Stefani or popular acts like Big Boi or Schoolboy Q, you were in luck as they performed on either the side-by-side Events.com and Port of San Diego stages, situated at the end of Embarcadero North, or nearby Coors Light stage in Seaport Village.
Getting from these stages to the northernmost Ruocco Park required more of an effort. And on busier weekend nights, it could be challenging accessing the third-largest Coors Light stage due to the herd having to cross a two-person-wide stairwell. One of the bigger snags occurred on Sunday, when a throng traversed to see R&B bassist Thundercat. While the purpose for the bridge is to allow cross-traffic on the pathway below, it would significantly improve flow if organizers can devise a workaround for next year that allows those making their way to the Coors Light stage to remain on the wider, ground-level path.
This year, Wonderfront bookers amped up their lineup from 2019, which included Miguel, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, and MGMT. Saturday’s headliner Kings of Leon sounded spectacular, festival stalwarts Cage the Elephant and Young the Giant both thrilled with high-energy sets, and emerging acts like Quinn XCII and Saint Motel proved why they deserved to be here. Many artists, such as Fitz and The Tantrums, had new music out, and commented on how great it was to perform for live audiences again.
Noticeably absent in 2019, country acts also showed up in force this year — from Friday headliner Zac Brown Band to recent CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award-winner Lainey Wilson. Regrettably, though, classic rock remained overlooked. I would love to see some ‘70s and ‘80s bands next year, along with some crowd-pleasing reunions and surprise guests.
In terms of timing, Wonderfront scores high marks. Most bands were very punctual about starting and stopping on schedule; after all, there wasn’t much wiggle room between acts, so if they were running late (as Swae Lee was) they would have to truncate their set. As one band was playing on the Port of San Diego stage, the crew would be setting up for the next act to take the Events.com stage, yielding a seamless transition for festivalgoers.
Of course, as its name suggests, there were more than just satisfying sounds at the Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival. Live art installations lined the bayfront, engaging activations like Diageo’s The Cantina (one of the few if only spirits sampling areas in the venue) were clustered throughout Embarcadero North’s main thoroughfare, artisans sold their wares (from crystals to cowboy hats), and food and drink (both alcoholic and non-) abounded.
But the real differentiator between Wonderfront and other music festivals I have attended is its focus on putting San Diego in the spotlight. Perhaps even more than the artists themselves. The locale is obviously a big part of this, sandwiched between sunsets over the bay and downtown’s striking skyline. So, too, is the festival’s encouragement to come and go, so visitors can ferry over to Coronado Island, check out a bar/restaurant in the Gaslamp, or dip their toes in the sandy shores of Del Mar.
When I went to Austin City Limits, I made a point to go a few days early so I could experience all the fun college town had to offer, from its honky-tonks to its BBQ joints. With the support of Port of San Diego and San Diego Tourism Marketing District, Wonderfront invites you to soak it in all at once. This is nowhere more evident than cruising along the harbor’s shore in the Spirit of San Diego, a charter yacht with bars on all three levels, live band on the second, and DJ spinning house hits on the rooftop deck. Traveling from the newly erected Rady Shell at Jacobs Park to the historic USS Midway, with music swimming through San Diego’s perfect weather, how could you not view this as a love letter to America’s Finest City?
That’s the wonder of Wonderfront.
For more than 30 years, Donovan Roche has covered the world of music – from the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” to Prince’s unpronounceable name change. Send your story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.