As Garden Grove Mayor Steve Jones walks the Garden Amp grounds, it’s obvious he’s just as excited as all of the goofy-looking teenagers, crusty punks and sunkissed hipsters attending Nothing Fest. “Ten to 15 years ago, this was a sleepy little Main Street with a bunch of antique malls, and we were trying to do our best just to revitalize it. . . . I don’t think I ever could have fathomed this!” hizzoner says with a proud smile of the “freakin’ awesome,” all-day music festival featuring some of Southern California’s best indie acts.
While crossdressing beach-Goth rocker DMTina plays a naturally rowdy set inside the Locker Room, the venue’s smaller indoor spot, Long Beach’s Skin Mag unleashes psychedelic, chilled-out tunes on the other side of the grounds at the Tree House, an outdoor space of about the same size. People who aren’t watching either of those two acts are exploring the various food and art vendors or waiting for electronic indie-pop icons James Supercave to finish setting up on the main amphitheater stage. For Jones, who was born and raised in an entirely different Garden Grove, the event is sort of surreal.
For more than three decades, the space was mainly used to host Shakespeare productions and the city’s annual Strawberry Festival. Although those events did gain some relative popularity, the Garden Grove Amphitheatre was only active for one or two months of the year. But that changed in 2017, when LFA Group LLC signed a 10-year contract with the city. Since then, the newly rebranded Garden Amp has hosted countless local bands, touring acts and all-day festivals.
It should be noted that if LFA were a band, it’d be nothing short of a supergroup, with Jon Reiser, who’s gained a reputation for building up such venues as Detroit Bar (now the Wayfarer) in Costa Mesa and the Observatory in Santa Ana; Viet Tran, former owner of Shark Club in Costa Mesa and co-owner of Mexicasian fusion food truck/restaurant Dos Chinos; and Angel Zaragoza, who’s earned some serious punk-rock credibility from his experience with Warped Tour and on the road with the legendary group Strung Out.
When they first visited the amphitheater, they saw it had potential, even though it had never before functioned as a live-music venue. “We fell in love with this place right when we walked in,” says Tran. “There’s nothing else like this around here.”
For Reiser, the space provided the perfect blend of nostalgia and practicality. “I grew up going to Irvine Meadows as a kid, and I just always loved that property,” he explains. “So for a long time, I was looking for an outdoor space to sort of emulate that experience. Like, we’re in Southern California, and the weather’s great, so to experience a concert outside just has a different feel to it than being in a building. When you do a concert in a building and you put however many people in it, the HVAC systems can’t keep up. There are ventilation issues and all these things that make people uncomfortable. This [outdoor] experience takes most of that away. So it just seems like a better vibe. It’s less claustrophobic.”
Before Reiser discovered the Garden Grove Amphitheatre, he was considering converting a vacant parking lot into a venue. He tested the idea in an empty Santa Ana lot in 2015 with Outpost Fest, featuring the likes of Cold War Kids and Blonde Redhead.
“So I started to kind of go down that path: find a parking lot, cover it with fake grass, put in some shipping containers, build a festival stage, and boom, now it’s a venue,” Reiser says. “But when we found this, it was already fenced in; it was already a venue. . . . This was exactly what we were looking for, and the city wanted to bring some concerts and millennials to town. It just sort of made sense for everybody.”
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Under the direction of Jones and the Re:Imagine Garden Grove campaign, the city has been blooming. In 2014, Garden Grove hosted its first Open Streets event with live music, food trucks and beer gardens along a 2.5-mile stretch. The city also sponsored several public art installations, including a mural painted by former USC/Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich on the side of the historic GEM Theater.
In the summer of 2017, LFA Group brought High and Mighty Fest to Village Green Park, which is connected to the Garden Grove Amphitheatre. A collaboration between LFA and SoCal reggae staples Sublime With Rome and Dirty Heads, the festival was originally supposed to take place in Irvine but had to be relocated in just two months’ time. So LFA met with Garden Grove officials to figure out traffic, parking and logistics. “The City Council approved it, and we worked with them very closely to execute it,” says Reiser. “It all came together very quickly, and fortunately, it went really well.”
With the support of the city and, somewhat surprisingly, the surrounding neighborhood, the festival was the first of many events to come to the amphitheater. It was also the first time Jones had seen nationally touring acts play in his hometown. “Being up there and watching Sublime With Rome play ‘Garden Grove’ in Garden Grove, at a park . . . that was like, ‘I’m good. I can die now,’” he says and laughs.
These early victories produced a snowball effect for the Re:Imagine Garden Grove campaign, attracting more entrepreneurs and creatives. “It’s kind of been this natural progression,” says Jones. “All the cool kids are starting to converge in Garden Grove and open up businesses, restaurants and venues. So I feel like we’re right on the cusp of breaking it open. It’s taken a long time to get here, from my vantage point, but I’m impressed with what we’ve accomplished and where we’re going.”
The city has multiple developments scheduled to open this summer, including SteelCraft Garden Grove, an outdoor urban eatery. The concept, which started in Long Beach, utilizes repurposed shipping containers to host gourmet food and beverage vendors in a family-friendly atmosphere. Among the carefully curated occupants is the Penalty Box, a walk-up burger dive owned by former Anaheim Ducks legend Teemu Selänne.
Shaheen Sadeghi, a developer known for the Lab anti-mall in Costa Mesa and the Packing House in Anaheim, will bring his latest venture to Garden Grove. He’s purchased 15 Craftsman-style homes from the early 1900s, each of which will be leased to local businesses and covered in artistic murals, creating a hip, Instagram-worthy atmosphere.
Jones also hopes to bring some technology to the area, and to do so, he recently partnered with Arabian Prince, one of the founding members of LA gangsta-rap group N.W.A. “He’s a friend of mine, and he’s an amazingly bright and energetic guy,” Jones says. “He’s always hustlin’, and he’s involved in a million different tech-related things. We’re looking to bring video-gaming events to town, and we’re bringing a fast-pitch, venture-capital, tech-funding type of event to town in August.”
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While the city itself has been flourishing over the past couple of years, so has the Garden Amp. Not long after the success of High and Mighty Fest, LFA started programming the area on a regular basis. With Zaragoza’s punk and hardcore roots, Reiser’s countless connections from his years at Detroit Bar and the Observatory, and the addition of promoters Daniel Park and Chris Lisk, the team had no shortage of talent to work with. However, they were faced with the challenge of drawing a crowd to a venue that virtually no one had heard of before.
“In the past, we could just come out of the gate booking well-known artists,” Reiser explains. “But that’s really high-risk in terms of finances. If we do that here, we don’t sell tickets at the same rate that another venue would. Even if people see the ticket link—because they don’t know what this is, they inherently buy tickets to the venues they are familiar with.”
So the group focused on building a reputation for Garden Amp. From hosting local showcases with production teams such as Vertigo Volumes to selling out consecutive nights for reggae royalty Stephen Marley, LFA has brought more live music to Garden Grove than the city has seen before—no simple feat, considering some nearby residents didn’t even know what the space was being used for in previous years.
“Viet went to Garden Grove High School and never knew this place was here, which seems pretty common. It’s kind of trippy. A lot of people have told us that [the place] was a Southern California Edison thing because of that tower,” Reiser says, motioning to the amphitheater’s spotlight. “The only reason they know it’s a venue now is because they can hear us.”
Naturally, volume ended up being another issue to tackle. The facility was mainly used for theatrical productions, so its sound system wasn’t nearly loud enough for musical acts. A much larger, professional system was needed for the main stage. “This same system used to be part of a larger one at the Greek [Theatre], so it’s pretty legit,” Reiser says with a laugh.
However, as we all learned from Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. The louder sound system brought with it the potential for more noise complaints from the neighbors, especially those in the apartment complex adjacent to the Garden Amp. But the management team made a point of being hands-on in solving any such issues. “[Reiser, Zaragoza and Park] are here for pretty much every show,” says Tran.
This level of engagement has been the key to establishing a good relationship between the city and Garden Amp. “I credit them for doing a really good job at being community-conscious,” says Jones. “They get out there and meet with the neighbors. Whenever we get any complaints about noise or decibels or that kind of stuff, they’ll actually go sit down in living rooms and try to resolve it. Especially with respect to being in entertainment, being loud and noisy and drawing crowds, they’re good about mitigating all the downside of that by just being active and involved.”
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Besides maintaining an open line of communication with the community, LFA utilizes outside-the-box thinking while improving the grounds. For example, what now houses the Locker Room is a temporary modular building that once functioned as a dressing room for actors.
“The lockers were already there,” explains Reiser. “We just turned them around, put them up on some stage decking, and thought, ‘Hey, that makes kind of a cool backdrop.’” The resulting space has an intimate, DIY feel.
This quirkiness is present throughout the Garden Amp. Scraps of sheet metal left behind by previous tenants have been adorned with paintings, and some old props have been turned into interactive installments. Nearly every large walkway is being transformed into an art gallery. And the pinkish-orange chairs that line the inside of the amphitheater were once part of the vibrant sea of red at Angel Stadium.
With the main stage, the Locker Room and the Tree House (a small outside patio area with a stage), the space can essentially be broken up into three separate venues. And because the Locker Room and the Tree House are situated on opposite sides of the main amphitheater, each could host an entirely separate event on the same night.
But what truly sets the Garden Amp apart from other live-music venues are the visionaries behind it. Walk into LFA’s main office on any given day, and you’ll see a group of close friends pooling resources and utilizing each one’s creative strengths.
One of the best examples of this collaborative teamwork resulted in legendary New York hardcore band Gorilla Biscuits playing the amphitheater. In fact, Lisk booked an entire mini-tour for the group just to get them to Garden Grove. “I’ve had a deep relationship with those guys since the first big show that I threw—Liskfest in 2008 at Oak Canyon Ranch,” Lisk explains. “Gorilla Biscuits headlined that show, and I ended up booking a bunch of other shows for them. So I kind of just came up with the idea and was like, ‘Hey, I really want to get you guys into this amphitheater. What do you think?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, let’s make a weekend out of it.’”
The show ended up being epic. The band reportedly claimed the gig was one of their all-time top five. It’s difficult to believe that any of the amphitheater’s seats were occupied that night, as the audience crowded into the pit area. The drum riser ended up hosting the band, as the rest of the stage was covered by moshing, crowd-surfing fans.
“People who operate a venue typically are like, ‘We have to have these barricades; we need this many security guards. It has to be done this way,’” says Reiser. “But we really understand the culture of that music. And we know that it actually is safe to do that, even though it might not look it to the outside perspective. If one of those kids falls, everybody grabs them and picks them up. So it allows us to be comfortable enough to remove barricades and have our security guards just kind of stand back.”
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Clearly, the minds behind the Garden Amp have a genuine love for the music scene at large. They even make a point of hiring some of their musician friends when they aren’t touring. “It’s funny because I’ll forget about it,” says Park, “and some band member will come up to me like, ‘Dude, the lead singer of Death By Stereo is stage managing right now!’”
Much like its home city, Garden Amp continues to grow. This summer, a new restaurant will open in a converted snack bar area on the Tree House side of the property. Tran, who might pull from his experience with Dos Chinos, says it will most likely serve gastropub-style cuisine, which Zaragoza guarantees will be top-notch. “It’s got to be good, dude,” he says. “I hate it when I go to a restaurant, and I can cook better than what I’m getting. So we have got to be able to eat the food that we’re serving, and we’re picky as shit.”
The team also plans to bring live music to the Locker Room every night in the hopes of nurturing a local music scene. Nothing Fest is certainly a step in that direction.
For hip-hop artist Josh Dominguez, the event gives him an opportunity to perform in his hometown. “I can’t be more proud of not just Garden Grove, but Orange County locals in general for creating a movement in a place that has been deprived of energy due to the massive amount of entertainment outlets across Orange County and Los Angeles,” he says.
What seems to be most important to the Garden Amp team is the overall experience. “All venues have a perspective or something,” says Reiser. “What you see them put up is some sort of reflection of the people that are running it. . . . From the minute you interact with someone to the minute you leave, that should be a positive experience.”