From scorching performances by Eddie Vedder and Foo Fighters to impassioned environmental conversations, it was much more than just another music festival
By Jake Howard
The 2023 Ohana Festival had it all, from epic musical performances to deep dives into sustainability and environmental issues, to a guest appearance by Congressman Mike Levin, and even a little rain. The fun began last Thursday, Sept. 28, when I was invited to attend the Ohana Festival’s first-ever Inspiring Activism Award.
Hosted by the Vitalogy Foundation and the Marisla Foundation, the award honored the tireless efforts of Dr. Sylvia Earle and Kris Tompkins. A renowned marine biologist, oceanographer, author and lecturer, Earle was the first female chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She’s also a National Geographic Explorer at Large and was TIME magazine’s first-ever Hero for the Planet in 1998. Tompkins is the former CEO of Patagonia and co-founder of Tompkins Conservation, which to date has played a pivotal role in protecting over 14 million acres of parklands in Chile and Argentina.
As a way to say thanks for the dedication and commitment to making the world a better place, Ohana Festival founder and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder invited the small crowd to sit in and enjoy his sound check. Featuring an all-star cast of musicians, including Abe Laboriel Jr., who’s been Paul McCartney’s drummer for more than 20 years, the band ran through a number of original tunes, several Pearl Jam classics, as well as impassioned covers of U2’s hit “One” and The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”
In the warmup for the weekend on Friday, Sept. 29, The Killers took the stage. Vedder joined the band for a couple tunes before surprise guest Sammy Hagar, formerly of Van Halen, came out and belted the hit “Why Can’t This Be Love.”
One of the features that makes the Ohana Festival different from most other music festivals is its Storyteller’s Stage, which over the past couple of years has turned into a gathering place for some of the world’s most renowned environmentalists and activists. The impressive list of speakers this year was highlighted by Hawaii’s Dr. Cliff Kapono, who brought the science and the aloha; Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert, who talked the business of activism; big-wave heroes Greg Long and Paige Alms, who shared thoughts on surviving in giant surf; and Congressman Levin, who discussed environmental policy in Washington. D.C. (and then stayed to enjoy Foo Fighters). A passionate surfer and environmental advocate himself, Vedder deserves a tip of the hat for making the Storyteller’s Stage a priority and allowing so much great information to be shared.
On Saturday night, Sept. 30, The Chicks took the stage before Vedder and his band came out and lit up the night. Vedder hit an emotional chord when he played a solo acoustic version of the song “Just Breathe,” dedicating it to a friend he’d just lost to ALS.
By the time Sunday evening, Oct. 1, rolled around, it was standing-room only. The Pretenders, led by rocker Chrissie Hynde, ripped through a set of their greatest hits before relinquishing the stage to Foo Fighters.
“This night is about Taylor Hawkins,” announced frontman David Grohl, dedicating the performance to his fallen friend and drummer, who grew up in nearby Laguna Beach.
“I never really understood Taylor until I came to Laguna,” joked Grohl.
Ripping through some of Foo Fighters’ most famous songs and teasing a number of heavy rock classics along the way, it was a performance the likes of which sleepy, old Doheny State Park has never seen. Up against a 10 p.m. noise curfew, one gets the feeling they would have played all night had they been allowed.
Since its founding in 2015, there’ve been no shortage of inspired performances at the Ohana Festival over the years, but as I walked back to my car, I had the feeling this may have been the best one yet.