Live Review: Just Like Heaven 2023

This, all of my elder millennials, will make you feel old: MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular (the album that spawned hit song “Electric Feel”) turned 15 this year, and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Fever To Tell is 20. These artists headlined the third iteration of Just Like Heaven festival in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday and played songs off both of these albums so that we could relive our 20s, at least for one day. 

When I first saw the lineup for Just Like Heaven, I thought it resembled the Pandora playlist I listened to in college while I pre-gamed with my friends before heading out to a party. In addition to the aforementioned MGMT and YYYs, the ticket featured Empire Of The Sun, Hot Chip, M83, the Faint and STRFKR, among others. An embarrassment of riches for a one-day event for indie-music fans who came of age in the early aughts. And the last set was scheduled to end by 11 p.m., so we could all get to bed at a reasonable hour and have a full day to recover before going back to our jobs on Monday. 

Organized by concert promoter Goldenvoice, Just Like Heaven was first held in 2019 to showcase the best of the “era-defining indie artists from the 2000s.” For any regular festival-goer who has witnessed the scene become increasingly homogenous over the past decade (love them, but how many times can we watch Foo Fighters and Odesza?), Just Like Heaven is a reprieve. 

STRFKR (photo by Julian Bajsel)

This is one of a handful of festivals emerging recently that taps into millennial nostalgia. The When We Were Young fest in Las Vegas and, to some extent, Shaky Knees in Atlanta also cater to the demographic that listened to this music during the carefree days of Razr flip phones, skinny jeans, Garden State and AIM away messages. Long relegated to college-radio stations and local bars/venues, indie music was gaining traction on a national level with the advent of Myspace, MTV2 and other platforms that allowed for alternative-rock, electronic, pop and folk music to reach a wider audience.

As the festival kicked off early Saturday afternoon on a perfect California day, throngs of excited fans descended upon the Rose Bowl. Mostly a mid-20s to early-40s crowd, it also included a substantial number of tattooed hipster couples with kids in tow—ensuring they’re indoctrinated into the music-festival scene at an early age. The venue itself was well-suited for an event of this magnitude: Brookside Park, adjacent to the monolithic Rose Bowl, featured grassy knolls, refreshing water features and clusters of leafy trees dotting the landscape. Like an apparition, the looming San Gabriel Mountains were enveloped in a transparent haze. Along with the palm trees, this scenery served as an Instagram-worthy backdrop for fans documenting their fun.

Empire Of The Sun (both photos by Gina Joy)

One of the first artists to play was Portland electronic-pop band STRFKR, whose members emerged onstage in their trademark space-cadet jumpsuits. As attendees streamed in, grabbed their $15 Pacificos and parked themselves under the shade next to the Orion Stage, STRFKR warmed up with mellow numbers such as “Golden Light” before segueing into the ubiquitous “Rawnald Gregory Erickson The Second” and the uptempo “Malmö,” “While I’m Alive” and “Florida,” as dancers in astronaut gear pranced around the stage and crowd-surfed.

The award for the most visually elaborate and immersive performance of the day went to Empire Of The Sun. The Australian electronic-rock duo has a fantasy-themed public persona, often appearing as if they emerged from your video-game console while playing The Legend Of Zelda. Their impressive production included glowing stage pieces, animations choreographed to the music and dancers who changed costumes for just about every song. They also used a gratuitous amount of smoke à la The Wizard Of Oz. Empire Of The Sun launched into the guitar riffs of “Standing On The Shore” before belting out club anthem “Old Flavours.” Both the mist and the thundering soundscape poured over the stage and into the crowd, infecting everyone with riotous energy as the sun slipped behind the San Gabriels. The audience erupted when Empire Of The Sun began playing “We Are The People” and biggest hit/Honda Civic theme song “Walking On A Dream.”

MGMT (photo by Rachel Polack)

Established in 2002 in a college dorm room in Connecticut (an origin story much like the social-media companies that helped popularize the indie music that the band produces), MGMT has evolved over the years. Early shows in small clubs and concert halls have given way to national tours and massive festivals, and to celebrate 20-plus years of longevity, Andrew VanWyngarden, Ben Goldwasser and Co. performed the album that put them on the map. In addition to playing Oracular Spectacular front to back and early track “Love Always Remains,” they offered several interstitial vignettes that told the story of how MGMT came to be.

As Yeah Yeah Yeahs wrapped up its set, a chilly air swept through Brookside Park, heralding the end of this year’s Just Like Heaven. While the hope is that the big festivals eventually begin to cater again to the fans who made them popular, at least we can rely on this event to bring us the music that we love. 

—Maureen Coulter