Phil Pirrone knows you've got to take a chance when the universe presents you with an opportunity. In 2011, the longtime musician and maverick event organizer lived in an apartment in downtown Pomona that required him to contribute to the city's popular monthly Art Walk. With the help of friends, Pirrone threw a huge block party, booking a long roster of bands and securing a shopping-center stage.
"The second we plugged in the PA and put on some music to test it, it was so loud everyone was like, 'What's going on?'" he recalls. About 5,000 people showed up for the first installment of what has become one of the most anticipated alternative music festivals in Southern California: Moon Block Party. The third edition–featuring headliners the Black Angels, Band of Skulls and Black Lips, as well as several up-and-coming local acts–hits Pomona's Fairplex on Saturday.
"I spent most of my young adult years touring and loving festivals and being totally inspired by live music," says Pirrone, who grew up in and around Pomona and resettled there in his 20s. The city struck him as the perfect place to start a music collective. "It was just me and my friends trying to do it on our own, but it kind of blossomed into this community effort. Bands from Orange County, Inland Empire, the desert, LA–they all sort of banded together to play this show for free to raise money for charity."
The festival collective that grew out of that event, Moon Block–a cadre of Southern California musicians and artists including Pirrone's wife, Deap Vally drummer Julie Edwards–is now a grassroots music superpower. In April 2012, it organized its first Desert Daze, an 11-day festival in Desert Hot Springs featuring more than 120 bands that still stands as a milestone to Pirrone. "That was a turning point," he says. "We all just looked at one another and were like, 'Yeah, this is what we're gonna do now.'" That's when Moon Block turned into a full-time job for Pirrone. Though he has since decided to trim the festival to just one day, its popularity and ace-level curation have made it one of the most anticipated outings of the year.
Pirrone finds Moon Block's endeavors organic. "Live music is a harmonic thing," he says. "It's the thing that binds us all together, and we don't even know it. To us, the most worthwhile thing to do is support and showcase live music and bring people together to experience that harmonic energy."
A core tenet of the collective's philosophy is to showcase new talent from Southern California's music underground. Pirrone handles the booking himself, and even though lineups can change at the last minute, the universe always provides. "It's also a matter of who is available," Pirrone says, laughing.
"Phil cares about the music," says Tracy Bryant of LA post-punk quartet Corners, who are playing this year's Moon Block Party and have performed at Desert Daze in the past. "There's a strong community around the fest, and all the bands playing have a unique relationship to Phil. He understands what we're doing."
Though Moon Block Party has grown steadily, the focus remains on the music, not the cash, says Pirrone, who is not interested in turning Moon Block into a second Coachella. "I personally can't imagine doing a 100,000-people festival, and I'm not sure who that is really for," he says. "I know it's business, but can't a festival also be an act of humanity? You want to feel like a human being, not a part of a demographic."
And that explains a large part of the festival's success: that the audience is at the center of the Moon Block experience. "We have a good eclectic crowd from all walks of life, but mainly, it's creative types," Pirrone explains. "It's artists and musicians, producers and DJs. This is where they go to relax and party." And Pirrone and the rest of Moon Block are working on establishing international bridgeheads. "We've got partners in Mexico and Spain and a couple of other places. It'll be the same model in which we try to promote local music."
But right now, Pirrone admits, it's hard to focus on anything other than the upcoming Moon Block Party in Pomona. This year, the collective has pushed the visual aspects of the show.
"We're going to transform the infield of the horse track, which is this historic monument, into an outer-space playground. It's going to be like a block party on the moon," he says. In addition to bands, Moon Block is also bringing in oil projection artist Mad Alchemy and video artist Demonbabies to give the event an appropriately psychedelic vibe. "It'll be out of this world. We really recommend people show up in their alien or astronaut costumes," says Pirrone. "All I can say is that there are going to be a lot of different beings at this thing, so come prepared."
Moon Block Party, featuring Spoon, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Black Angels, Band of Skulls, the Black Lips and more, at the Pomona Fairplex, 1101 W. McKinley Ave., Pomona, (909) 623-3111; moonblockparty.org. Sat., noon. $45-$85. All ages.