Following a two-year pause, Cali Roots is still one of the largest and most popular reggae-rock festivals. And the 11th annual gathering’s lineup is full of big-time acts, ready to perform for the 50,000 plus expected to flood the Monterey County Fairgrounds from May 26-29.
Cali Roots veterans Damian “Junior Gong” Marley (9:30pm, Sunday, May 29; The Bowl) and Atmosphere (6:05pm, Friday, May 27; The Bowl) join festival newcomers Ice Cube (7:10pm, Sunday, May 29; The Bowl) and Hirie (6pm, Sunday, May 29; The Cali Roots Stage). 2022 marks the event’s expansion from three days to four, kicking off Thursday with a full roster, punctuated by Stephen Marley (8:45pm, Thursday, May 26; The Cali Roots Stage) and Dirty Heads (9:50pm, Thursday, May 26; The Bowl).
Meanwhile, Santa Cruz’s The Expendables, another Cali Roots mainstay, play The Bowl on Friday at 3:20pm. The Soquel High buddies Geoff Weers (vocals and guitar), Raul Bianchi (lead guitar) and Adam Patterson (drums) formed The Expendables in 1997—bassist Ryan DeMars joined three years later. DeMars, an Aptos High grad, is thrilled to return to the Fairgrounds—the band played Cali Roots in 2019, before the two-year gap.
“Cali Roots was the first festival of our genre, and a couple of more festivals have popped up,” DeMars says. “You tour with these bands; you become really good friends, then you don’t see each other because you’re working with other bands. And then you come back to all these festivals; it’s like you never left playing with each other.”
The Expendables have come a long way. DeMars recalls the early days, opening for Eek-a-Mouse at the Catalyst and selling their demo In the Weeds at a table hidden in a dark corner next to the bar. Now, the quartet is a headlining act performing at a world-renowned festival.
The Santa Cruz-Cali Roots connection runs deeper.
Jeff Monser, the guy behind the entire event, hails from Santa Cruz. He went from slinging T-shirts at festivals around the country to creating Monterey’s most successful music festival ever.
Monser started with a $4,000 sponsorship from Kona Brewing Co. and a product sponsorship from Monster Energy, but it wasn’t quite enough. The artist/screen-printing shop owner had to put up most of the cash he made from his business and worked a second full-time job, screen-printing for Specialized Bicycles.
In 2010, Cali Roots debuted at the Monterey County Fairgrounds on the small Garden Stage. The afternoon event featured eight bands, with Dirty Heads headlining (Tribal Seeds, Thrive and The Holdup were also on the bill). About a thousand people attended.
In 2011, Cali Roots expanded to two days and drew 5,000 on both days—Monser had no previous experience producing music events before Cali Roots but knew he had struck gold.
By its third year, Monser was out of his league. He had to bring someone on who knew what they were doing. Dan Sheehan—now, the festival producer and co-owner—came on and transformed the event into an internationally lauded gathering. The happening has hosted Slightly Stoopid, Matisyahu, 311, Don Carlos, Nas, Thievery Corporation, The Roots, Cypress Hill and Rebelution—it’s become a bastion of Memorial Day weekend; sold-out, smoked-out musical bliss.
Rebelution drummer Wesley Finley is a product of North Monterey County High School’s music department. He met bandmates Eric Rachmany (vocals/guitar), Rory Carey (keyboards) and Marley D. Williams (bass) at UC Santa Barbara. Finley says performing in a venue that he considers his home turf is incredible.
“It feels kind of surreal and serendipitous, too, in a way, just because I’m from here and I actually live just a couple of miles from the Fairgrounds,” he says. “I can hear music [from my house] sometimes. It takes place right here. It’s one of the biggest reggae festivals, it’s my hometown, and it’s also my birthday weekend—it’s this crazy culmination of circumstances that I get to be a part of, and it’s special to me.”
Night Market 831, inspired by global open-air street bazaars, is an inclusive, collaborative space for festivalgoers to experience a rotating roster of local performers, artists and artisans. No matter how big Cali Roots goes, it continues to embrace the local talent. Salinas reggae outfit The Rudians make their festival debut on Thursday, May 26 at 2:45pm on the Pop-Up Stage.
California Roots Music and Arts Festival happens Thursday, May 26 -Sunday, May 29. Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairgrounds Road, Monterey. $141.35/Thursday single-day pass; $176.44/Friday, Saturday and Sunday single-day pass. californiarootsfestival.com.