Just Like Heaven 2023 blazes through Pasadena with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MGMT, M83, more

The 2000s and 2010s were shining and rocking up a storm on Saturday as Pasadena’s indie-rock fest Just Like Heaven which returns for the second straight year at Brookside at the Rose Bowl. Most notably, it was a rather international collection of acts including headliners Yeah Yeah Yeahs as well as MGMT, The Bravery and Azealia Banks from New York, M83 who originally formed in France, Empire of the Sun from Australia, Hot Chip, Ladytron and Metronomy from the UK, Caribou and Peaches from Canada, Fever Ray and The Hives from Sweden and a number of others from all over the U.S. including Future Islands, The Walkmen, STRFKR, The Faint, Cults and more. The talent played up the opportunity for marvelous costumes, glitter and flair with the nostalgic, celestial theme as astronauts jumped for joy during STRFKR’s set, Fever Ray’s Karin Dreijer went for a menswear look with a tie and what looked like a lot of sunscreen (we kid, it was makeup), Peaches delighted in an extra juicy werewolf-looking hairy beast look with a number of hanging breasts (because women’s rights), Empire of the Sun had spectacular costumes, visuals and performers as always and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s donned an epic, geometric red dress and a sort of sparkly showgirl purple and yellow reveal following. Spectacle aside, and really there was a lot, the Just Like Heaven artists this year (and in 2022) really captured the iPod-listening fans’ dreamy rock and electro adventure from the aughts, proving there is a still an appetite for rock music. These acts should probably get some credit for ushering in the electronic sound that followed and likely inspired EDM as well. In rockstar sightings, Bad Suns‘ lead singer Christo Bowman was seen enjoying Metronomy and The Bravery, among others at the festival.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs kicked off their headlining set at the Stardust Stage, having just started a massive U.S., international and festival cycle earlier this month. Karen O’s red metallic dress and futuristic glasses were a memorable look to go with her soothing vocal on the moody “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” that picked up into its indie-rockness with O’s voice soaring and a big guitar solo from Nick Zinner to cap it off. The synth of “Rich” was just that, with Karen O spinning around the stage and her voice sounding like guitar effects while the actual guitars fired away under red lights. O was whisper singing on “Art Star” and later on the stage floor face down starting to remove the red geometric dress to reveal a sparkly yellow and purple number, wailing later on the punky song, and “doot doot doot-ing” with her finger up dancing like a flapper. Following the song she said, “That’s a deep cut, that’s a deep fuckin’ cut right there.”

The piano chords were heavy on “Burning,” with tambourine added, and some psychedelic guitar as well as disco-era synthy strings, giving a sort of evolved Carole King with Karen O’s pretty singing floating over the field with bright blue ocean waves upside-down and crashing on the screens. “Yeah LA!” shouted O. “Ain’t it just like heaven out here? Saturday night in LA! Yeah Yeah Yeahs and like hella legends all over the place tonight. Yeah Yeah Yeahs loves rockers rockers rockers, and if you’re here tonight you love rockers too.” “Zero” started immediately, giving serious Just Like Heaven vibes with it’s spacey electronic synth, O’s voice belting and a giant eyeball beachball-type object appeared in the crowd. You could see the glitter specks on her face and Karen O’s bedazzled back of her jacket with “KO” in the shape of an eye. Dreamy, multi-colored light looped on stage for the mid-tempo pop-rock “Soft Shock” with the singer spinning around again, the crowd clapping or with their hands up and O yelling “Love in the house tonight!” following the song.

Karen O’s voice filled Brookside beautifully for “Sacrilege” with addictive drums from Brian Chase and a really memorable bassline as the crowd clapped along to the gospel-tinged ending. One day, a choir will make this come alive even more. “Gold Lion” got both the lead singer and the crowd into the “ooh oohs” and she swung her hair at times, dancing in place rapidly like the indie-rock Tina Turner. The electronic production of “Y Control” was sounding like a jacked up dial tone with the crowd loving the song energy and O’s voice sounding rather alluring. She held a killer rockstar pose at the end with a hand out off her should and said, “LA nights, man LA nights, you can’t beat LA nights.” The singer announced “Maps” as “the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ love song” and dedicated it to Peaches, Ladytron and a host of other female artists who played during the day. “Happy Mother’s Day to all the fucking moms,” added O. She stopped the show to sing happy birthday to her husband Barney and the crowd joined in of course. Back to the song, the guitars on “Maps” were so iconic and O wailed away after the last chorus, which earned a huge applause. Karen O’s “ugh” and groans and moans stylishly kicked off “Heads Will Roll” with provocative bass and drums, with the musicians offering a bit of an extended, built-up intro. It evolved into a totally flavor-blasted version by the end, a completely epic festival moment with a sea of arms silhouetted by the lights and lots of jumping and dancing. The punk-influenced “Date With The Night” concluded the evening with O’s voice morphed into a bit of a brassy tone wailing “jump jump jump!”

M83 delivered an absolute showstopper of a set, with big rock concert instrumentation, the likes most have probably not seen from an electronic band. There was a fluidity to their beautiful show, starting with more gentle and organic instrumentation, lifting off later on in brilliant Just Like Heaven form. A gorgeous orchestral opening of “Water Deep” twinkled with a green-blue ombre, with drummer Julien Aoufi shirtless and crashing away during the massive instrumental. “Good evening Pasadena,” said lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Gonzalez. “We are M83 and we are excited to spend the evening together.” The synthy opening of “Oceans Niagara” found keyboardist and singer Kaela Sinclair harmonizing wonderfully with Gonzalez as inviting pink, blue and orange hues lit up the entire ensemble. Sinclair started off “Amnesia,” a new wave-tinged pop-rock track with stunning green and blue beams everywhere, telling the visual story with harmonies galore as some animated neon characters found their way on the screen, creating a total vibe.

It looked like a spaceship of red and yellow lights for “Earth To Sea,” sounding more and more like a rock show with numerous blinking yellows, as funky guitars twitched and more pretty vocals from Sinclair were heard blended with Gonzalez’s calming tone. Some head banger-worthy guitars from Théophile Antolinos and bassist (and sometimes violinist) Clément Libes and light synth from Joe Berry (who also plays keys and sometimes saxophone and electric wind instruments) were in order on “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” with all musicians rocking out and Berry joining in with his sax. “Noise” continued a bit of the beautiful instrumental chaos and then starburst lighting took over the Orion Stage for the chill, yet urgent ballad “Wait” with beams floating out into the crowd and some lovely harmonies from the singers, making it one of the most beautiful pieces of the entire festival. 

Kaela Sinclair started off a wonderful vocal on “Solitude” with spotlights on her in hues of blue and turquoise and the live violin from Libes brought more magic to the ballad which also featured Gonzalez’s vocals and warm piano from Berry. A purple stage wash with pink accents was totally not like heaven, it was a dream, picking up to an uptempo synth-pop tune and the show flipped a switch like a speeding asteroid in the sky, transitioning with precision and serene “oohs” from Sinclair, giving off a totally hypnotic burst of energy. Bass-heavy nu-disco title track “Fantasy” from their 2023 album of the same name (and sixth new song played) showcased perhaps one of M83’s secret sauces, the beauty of the male and female voices together from Gonzalez and Sinclair, with super colorful visuals, spectacular for the sound. [The lighting designer completely crushed it and deserves high praise]. Dream-pop global smash “Midnight City” was known by the crowd from the very first note, a tune that was ranked in the top songs of 2011 by many news outlets. Under piercing white lights during the verses and an indigo blur for the otherworldly chorus, the M83 audience was clapping along for one of the most exciting songs that can possibly be heard from the 2010 decade. Joe Berry’s saxophone solo was also sensational and may stand as one of the top horn solos in recorded music from the decade. Gonzalez and Sinclair were back on the vocals for the “happy happy happy, no soul” energy of “Mirror,” an electro tune with percolating synth and production and amazing drums complemented by blinking orange lights and a killer bassline. Berry played his electric wind instrument for the second time of the night and it was like an extended dance party. The spaceship landed for “My Tears Are Becoming A Sea,” taking things back to the Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming magic of the band’s breakthrough album, with its cinematic and grandiose instrumentation, Gonzalez sounding stellar belting his vocals and beams of white-yellow light everywhere for a truly heavenly ending.

Aussie duo Empire of the Sun always come to party and they were certainly “Walking On A Dream,” like their hit song which started slow and built up to a crazy crescendo with Luke Steele’s perfect falsetto and Nick Lattimore harmonizing while two dancers moved like Raggety Ann dolls from Avatar’s world of Pandora. The guys were decked out in white and black capes and delighted fans with other hits like the feel-good “High and Low”, acoustic-driven “We Are The People,” new wave “DNA” and the thrilling “Alive,” with the revelers singing along to the children’s choir during epic guitars. Fans chanted the chorus lyrics during the exhilarating hit song as Empire of the Sun bowed in the smoke, like they were heading off into the clouds. When they spoke to the crowd, Lattimore said, “Los Angeles, hello. It’s so great to be here after two years of being locked away in a cabin. You are the warriors —the secret weapon: love.”

The Bravery played their first show in a long time and announced a new album is on its way later this year or the top of 2024, which was exciting to fans as the band has not released an album since 2009. Hit song “Believe” sounded magical with lo-fi graphics on the backdrop, with fans loving the moment, waving their hands to the beat of the anthem. When lead singer Sam Endicott greeted the crowd, he said, “What’s up y’all, do you guys wanna hear some new songs?” The crowd roared back but Endicott said, “Well that’s too bad ’cause we’re not playing any.” After some audience laughted that’s when they announced a new album is in the works. The Bravery covered The Descendants’ “Suburban Home” and their electro hit “An Honest Mistake” had its iconic guitars driving the danceable indie-rock song with equally thrilling drums.

MGMT performed their hit album Oracular Spectacular in full and in the recorded sequence starting off with “Time To Pretend” and included other hits like “Electric Feel” and “Kids.” STRFKR surprised the crowd with an indie-rock flavored cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” with seven dancing astronauts on stage and hits “Open Your Eyes” and “Golden Light” were definite highlights. Metronomy impressed with their whimsical “The Look,” the wonky “The Bay” and psychedelic-pop tune “Love Letters.” Ladytron‘s new song “City of Angels” was a fitting choice for the setting and they also played “Seventeen” and “Ace of Hz.” Azealia Banks was 30 minutes late to her set but brought her fierce energy on “Liquorice,” getting into the groove on “New Bottega” and turned up the heat on her electro banger “212.” Future Islands‘ lead singer Samuel Herring was a complete force, sweating his face off and working the stage like a true frontman to the band’s hits “Seasons (Waiting on You),” “For Sure” and “King of Sweden.” Indie-rock band The Walkmen got twangy with the guitars and impressed with their tunes “The Rat,” “Heaven” and the garage rock song “Angela Surf City.” 

Words by Michael Menachem
Images by Eric Han