I’m just going to put this out there, now that live music has come roaring back for good: As of 2023, Sea.Hear.Now in Asbury Park, New Jersey might just be the country’s best music festival.
That title is always hotly debated, at least in my traveling music nerd circles. Five years ago, I would have said Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama, or Voodoo Fest in New Orleans. But ever since its instant-success inception back in 2018, Sea.Hear.Now has been steadily upping its game in terms of artistry and star power. This year’s event, held September 16 and 17, truly cemented its status as The One To Beat. (It should be noted that both Hangout and Voodoo are now basically non-factors; Voodoo has been on a prolonged hiatus ever since the pandemic, and Hangout is now tragically catering to the TikTok crowd.)
Let’s begin with the head count. If you’ve been to some of the relatively nearby festivals like, say, Governors Ball in New York City, or Firefly in Dover, Delaware, you’ve probably spent half the weekend bottlenecked at parking lots, restrooms and turnstiles. By comparison, Sea.Hear.Now is quite literally a walk in the park, hosting 35,000 people across a quarter-mile of beach and boardwalk, with far more ease and accessibility than those other fests. 35,000 is a lot of people, sure, but that’s still just a third of the size of the Firefly crowd, and less than a quarter of the Governors Ball crowd. I found free parking about half a mile away. Even during the midday peak of admissions, entry takes minutes, not hours.
Naturally, the weather is always the one big question mark. Late September in New Jersey is never exactly a sure thing. The days immediately preceding the show- as well as the days that follow- have been wet, gray, and blustery.
Yet with uncanny timing, it seems to have become a sort of annual Jersey Shore tradition for the clouds to part just in time for Sea.Hear.Now. This year, the weather is truly local summer perfection: Mid-seventies sunshine all day, t-shirt weather all night, and epic head-high waves for all of the visiting surfers. On Sunday, just before sunset, the crowd feels a few raindrops- and then, only minutes later, the skies clear and warm breezes return, as if Dave Grohl himself simply made a phone call and ordered the rain away.
And that brings me to the lineup: For my money, you just can’t find better live acts in modern rock and roll than this year’s one-two punch of The Killers and Foo Fighters. The Killers bring the glossy danceability, while Foo Fighters specialize in red meat guitar riffs, and both bands can easily fill a 90-minute setlist with nonstop bangers and crowd-pleasers. Both bands can hold 35,000 people of various generations in the palms of their sweaty hands.
And it’s not like Sea.Hear.Now is the only place to catch The Killers or Foo Fighters; both bands are regular fixtures on the festival circuit. But take a look at how deep this year’s bench really goes: On Saturday, Australian phenom Tash Sultana brings a dazzling reinvention of guitar loops to the Park Stage, while the two members of Royal Blood rock harder than most four- or five-piece acts ever will.
On Sunday, The Breeders play their landmark album Last Splash from top to bottom, while The Beach Boys blaze through their classics with none other than John freaking Stamos on the drums. If you happen to make Sunday’s late night show at the Stony Pony, you can catch Brandon Flowers and Jake Clemons jumping onstage with The Tangiers Blues Band for an impromptu cover of Springsteen’s Promised Land.
I’ve only barely mentioned the surf. Like I said, weather is always the question mark. Only one week prior, the nearby Belmar Pro competition got skunked on waves, and competitors struggled to make do with choppy, ankle-high shore break. And yet, almost miraculously, perfect conditions have aligned just in time for Sea.Hear.Now’s surf contest, where a spellbound crowd watches pros like Cam Richards, Sam Hammer and Cassidy McClain tear up glassy post-hurricane seven-footers, all while Sheryl Crow provides a live soundtrack.
If there is one critique to be heard, it’s that the sound mix is a little quiet across some of the venue. Ironically, some of the best vantage points are also the lowest on volume. This is certainly not a deal-breaker, and it’s actually a good problem to have if you’re just trying to socialize. But when 35,000 people are singing along to Mr. Brightside or Somebody Told Me, it’s hard to hear the performance itself- and none of those thousands of people have a voice that holds a candle to Brandon Flowers.
Volume aside, kudos to Danny Clinch and company for assembling their most epic lineup yet. A lot of the biggest events in the industry- even fests that used to pride themselves on musical pedigree- have become overblown showcases for studio-creation pop stars. I’m not going to name names, just take a look at this year’s Coachella lineup. Now more than ever, Sea.Hear.Now is a destination for real music fans: A festival where tried-and-true live chops are an absolute pre-requisite.
And that brings me back to my original pronouncement. Could Asbury Park’s little beach party now be considered the best music festival in the continental United States? I know, it’s a bold statement. California’s Ohana Festival has also been making some serious waves. But in a landscape of rising prices and Ticketmaster fiascos, Sea.Hear.Now has become a sort of reigning Heavyweight Champion of the festival year, a weekend stacked with talent where everybody gets their money’s worth.
One last thing: You know that a music festival has truly become an institution once a few online curmudgeons start claiming that said festival has gotten too crowded. To that handful of nitpickers, I’d say this: When you assemble some of the world’s greatest rock stars- in a city that was literally saved by rock and roll, no less- you’re going to draw a crowd. And even if you temporarily happen to lose your friends or your cell service, it’s not the end of the world. You’re still at the beach, on an absolutely gorgeous weekend.