The inaugural Darker Waves Festival in sunny Orange County, California, was a helluva lot of fun last month! About 38,000 people packed into a tight space on the state beach in Huntington Beach city for roughly 10 hours of amazing music by 33 bands.
Headliners New Order and Tears for Fears (whose sets did not overlap) were the big draw. Parklife friend Ben Eisendrath took photos of a few other favorites throughout the day, providing us with an opportunity to talk about some of the strengths of a festival like Darker Waves. (Mickey McCarter has provided a few words about the festival around these photos.)
On Nov. 18, Huntington Beach, no stranger to hosting festivals, welcomed Darker Waves 2023. The two main stages were set on sand, and a side stage was set on asphalt. And so, festival attendees spent much of the day on the sand, dashing between stages or grabbing a bite from a wealth of food vendors on hand.
Ben chose to highlight a range of bands with his photos, including young guns Blosssoms, extraordinary synth pioneers Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, festival draw The Cardigans, and the legendary dreamweavers Echo and the Bunnymen.
One of the appealing things about Darker Waves, and Goldenvoice’s Cruel World before it, was that earlier in the day, attendees could catch up-and-coming bands that have the same bright and/or moody sounds as their 80s influences. Many of these bands tend to be on the goth side of the coin, but quintet Blossoms are one of the relatively happier bands that performed at Darker Waves 2023.
Hailing from the Manchester area of England, Blossoms have released four studio albums to date, including 2022’s Ribbon Around the Bomb. At Darker Waves, the band’s eight-song setlist favored previous album Foolish Loving Spaces (2022).
Watch the official music video for “There’s A Reason Why (I Never Returned Your Calls)” by Blossoms on YouTube:
At Glastonbury 2023, Blossoms were joined by Rick Ashley, and the band and the man performed covers of songs by The Smiths for their set. That led to rampant rumors that the same would happen at Darker Waves, but Blossoms stuck to the script and turned out a strong set of synthpop that generated buzz among festival-goers.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Festivals like Darker Waves draw some juggernauts in their genre, and DW 2023 was packed with them. With a surprisingly early set, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, or OMD, stormed one of the main stages for a 10-song selection of unforgettable hits. Frontman Andy McCluskey, synthesist Paul Humphreys, drummer Stuart Kershaw, and multi-instrumentalist Martin Cooper started strong and only got better through a fast-pace clip of truly awesome music in the afternoon sun.
At Darker Waves, OMD shared the love among seven of their albums, of course hitting highlights like “If You Leave” from the John Hughes movie Pretty in Pink (which also appeared on The Best of OMD complication album). They opened their set with “Electricity,” their first single, and closed with “Enola Gay,” the powerful and timeless tune from Organisation, the sophomore OMD album.
Watch the official music video for “Enola Gay” by OMD on YouTube:
Absolute showmen, OMD positively killed it at Darker Waves, and they were the toast of the festival as measured by social media buzz. For those who could not get enough of the band, they performed a headlining show at House of Blues Anaheim on the night after the festival.
Slightly later in the afternoon, The Cardigans performed at a side stage in the festival. The Swedish pop band seemed to many to be an odd choice for the festival as they neither truly fit in with the new wave headlining acts or the dark wave opening bands. Known for their sugary radio hits in the ’90s, The Cardigans subverted expectations by opening with a cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” and closed their set with a cover of “Detroit Rock City” by KISS.
Within their 11-song set, The Cardigans managed to spool their radio faves from albums Gran Turismo and First Band on the Moon, performing songs like “My Favorite Game” and “Lovefool,” the earworm that put them on the international map.
Watch the official music video for “Lovefool” by The Cardigans on YouTube:
The Cardigans recorded a sixth and final album in 2005 before breaking up, but they reunited not long after to perform at festivals. And they clearly remain a festival draw to this day.
Echo and the Bunnymen
Few bands are made of the stuff of Echo and the Bunnymen, the Liverpool collective that has produced some of the most iconic songs ever, including “The Killing Moon,” a number that frontman Ian McCulloch calls the “greatest song ever written.”
The night prior to Darker Waves, Echo and the Bunnymen canceled a casino show due to laryngitis. Mac was sick and couldn’t sing. Although they didn’t cancel their Darker Waves appearance, they started about 20 minutes late, and the band performed only seven songs despite a late-in-the-day marquee position on the bill. To stall for time, The Doors guitarist Robby Krueger and another musician took the stage and played a few Bob Dylan covers after the band were at least 15 minutes late.
During the set, Krieger joined Echo and the Bunnymen for several songs, including a cover of “Roadhouse Blues” and their well-regarded cover of “People Are Strange” — both by The Doors. Along the way, Echo and the Bunnymen also performed their own top tunes “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” “The Killing Moon,” and “The Cutter,” alongside a few others.
Watch the official music video for “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen on YouTube:
Mac’s illness prompted cancellation of the band’s next show as well. Despite the struggle of their Darker Waves set, some folks were pleased they showed up and performed.
All in all, Darker Waves 2023 was a smashing success. While we don’t know if the festival will happen again, organizers collected feedback that they said would go into shaping the next edition of the festival.