By the second snare hit of Dave Grohl's drum intro to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991, the Sunset Strip was dead. The most famous stretch of surface street in rock history had birthed the careers of bands from the Doors to Motley Crüe. But after the unlamented demise of the decadent hair-metal scene, the neighborhood's musical juice began flowing eastward across Los Angeles to Silver Lake and beyond.
In its wake were a half-dozen walkable nightclubs like the Whisky and Roxy with an incredible legacy but a massive identity crisis and no clear way to move the scene forward.
"The word 'community' was never uttered," said Nic Adler, owner of the Roxy. "A lot of the owners had never seen each other's faces."
Then in 2008, something changed. The first Sunset Strip Music Festival, a collaboration between marquee venues on the Strip to host a weekend of bands on a single ticket, proved an unexpected success, both fiscally and for morale among fans and club owners alike. The following year, they did the previously unthinkable and shut down Sunset Boulevard, transforming the Strip into a pedestrian thoroughfare of black leather that spread inside the venues and onto the blacktop itself.
For its third installment, the festival has become something even more unlikely — a codification of West Hollywood as a music town in 2010.
"There's totally room for two music communities in Los Angeles," Adler said. "There are east and Westside sounds, and people want to move to this side of town for what we have."
The lineup for this year's festival suggests that the Westside sound is — well, the sound of absolutely everything across your radio dial. Smashing Pumpkins, part of the generation of angsty bands that first put a stake in the Strip's Aqua Net-ted heart, have aged into ambassadors from a time when guitar rock could rule the charts. The revival of that ethic is probably the main sonic ambition of the Strip today, with other fest bands like Lady Gaga's tourmates Semi Precious Weapons and the glammy Neon Trees and Saint Motel making their reputations between San Vicente and Doheny. The Strip's guitarist laureate, Slash, holds court with a solo set as well.
But additions of backpack-rap institution Common, the techno-adjacent MC Kid Cudi and Gym Class Hero Travis McCoy suggest that a younger generation of Strip denizens, who might have been conceived after long nights at the Rainbow in the '80s, have a polyglot appetite for pop and rap as well.
A healthy heterogeny is good for the neighborhood as well, especially as gentrification toward upscale restaurants and swank hotels buffed off most of the sleaze that once drew lost souls from the Midwest to the Strip. It's not just a boost for the clubs — it's a godsend for every other café, bookstore and bar that depends on the venues' nightly foot traffic.
"So many people have told me they've lived in L.A. forever and had never visited these venues because they weren't hip or whatever," said Karmen Beck of the Sunset Strip Business Assn. "The festival gives them an opportunity to make it attractive for them to stay and get to know the neighborhood. They have this incredible expanse of boulevard to explore."
Blocking off Sunset Boulevard has been the key to the fest's success, allowing a central place for fans to mingle and to create a sense of spectacle. But it's also been a psychological boost to the Strip's beleaguered club owners, who are happy to have some of their old magic back. It just didn't feel like home without the aroma of bad whiskey, unwashed chaps and walk-of-shame coffee in the air.
"The Strip still has its notorious feel," Adler said. "You'll walk into a place with the weirdest rock crowd imaginable and it'll be a band of drag queens playing. People have to start looking at the Strip as an authentic destination again. When you walk into the Roxy, you want that smell."
Sunset Strip Music Festival with Smashing Pumpkins, Slash, Common and more
Where: Sunset Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and Doheny Drive, West Hollywood
When: 1 p.m. Sat. Concerts also scheduled as part of the festival at various Sunset Strip night clubs Thursday and Friday nights.