Neon Desert Music Festival Brings Together Diverse Music Scenes

 Photos By Richard Gonzalez

Photos By Richard Gonzalez

Now in its 8th year, Neon Desert Music Festival has become somewhat of a Memorial Day tradition, attracting music fans from across the region to downtown El Paso. Even though Hip-Hop and EDM acts have been more prominently featured in recent editions, the festival still books some of the best local and international Latinx artists. We were on hand for the festival and spoke with several bands. These were our impressions. 

SATURDAY

On a hot and sunny afternoon, Juarez and El Paso’s own Dulce Mal kicked off the festival. The quintet played lively bossa nova with cumbia and reggae flair and certainly rewarded the attendees who showed up early. After their set, we caught up with Dulce Mal to talk about the influence having a festival like Neon Desert has for them and other local bands. Vocalist Helen Vargas noted, “It has helped us out a lot and given bands on both sides of the border a platform to create and perform.”

 Dulce Mal

Dulce Mal

On a hot and sunny afternoon, Juarez and El Paso’s own Dulce Mal kicked off the festival. The quintet played lively bossa nova with cumbia and reggae flair and certainly rewarded the attendees who showed up early. After their set, we caught up with Dulce Mal to talk about the influence having a festival like Neon Desert has for them and other local bands. Vocalist Helen Vargas noted, “It has helped us out a lot and given bands on both sides of the border a platform to create and perform.”

 Little Jesus

Little Jesus

Later in the afternoon, Mexico City’s Little Jesus took to the Paseo del Norte stage. After building a ravenous fan base in their hometown, the band is working to raise its profile with their fantastic sophomore album Río Salvaje. Expanding beyond the Vampire Weekend and Local Natives-eque melodies and hooks of their first album, the band incorporated genres such as psychedelic rock, funk, and soul. We sat down with vocalist/guitarist Santiago Casillas and guitarist Fernando Bueno to talk about the record who said, “I was trying to mix our stuff with like Pink Floyd. *laughs* We also wanted to do a soul track more like d’Angelo stuff, but we never want to copy anything. We just want to get those sounds and organically infuse them into what we already have.”

 Caloncho

Caloncho

Soon after the nightfall, it was time for Latin indie/folk hero Caloncho to perform. The Ciudad Obregón native, who had just finished a run of dates opening for Juanes and Mon Laferte on their Amarte Tour, was in fine form, playing several tracks from his latest record Bálsamo. When asked about his time touring with Juanes and Mon Laferte, Caloncho said, “It was an amazing experience, and it was different because I was playing for someone else’s audience, so you have to entertain and I grew a lot as a performer.”

Closing out day one were hometown post-hardcore legends At The Drive-In. The five-piece were appreciative of the crowd and reflected on the people and city who helped them during their rise. The band did not dwell too much on sentimentality though, and ripped through a high-octane set of new hits and old favorites. Even though the band is now entering the third decade of their career, the band sounded fresh and tight with vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala in particular displaying the irreverent, manic showmanship he has become famous for.

 At The Drive In

At The Drive In

SUNDAY

 Cuco

Cuco

When pride of Hawthorne, California Cuco took the stage on late Sunday afternoon, he said what everyone else in the crowd was acutely aware of: “It’s fucking hot out here.” Still, the heat did not keep the dream-pop crooner from performing a set that swung between chill house party (“Sunnyside”) to full on rager (“Lucy”).

 Bomba Estereo

Bomba Estereo

As the sun was starting to get low in the sky, Columbia’s Bomba Estéreo made sure night two was going to be a party. Playing tracks like “Soy Yo” and “Fiesta” kept the crowd dancing and jumping along to match the energy of vocalist Li Saumet. The band also deftly contrasts this energy with their more downtempo songs like “To My Love” and “Somos Dos,” giving their set variance and depth, not to mention a chance to catch one’s breath.

 Cafe Tacvba

Cafe Tacvba

Finally, with all due respect to Gucci Mane and Dillon Francis, Café Tacvba were the true headliners for many attendees on Sunday night. While the legendary Mexican band may not have had the biggest crowd of the weekend, they certainly had the most passionate, with fans chanting their name and signing songs well before their posted start time. With only an hour for their set time, the six-piece wasted no time playing a set packed with hits from their long career, and capping it off with particularly rousing renditions of “Eres” and “El Baile y el salon.”

Now that Neon Desert has identified the genres and types of acts it wants to book, it can focus on cementing its status as the premier music festival in the region. The festival has brought together several disparate scenes for a weekend creating a true music and arts community for El Paso, Juarez, and the region at large. As long as Neon Desert continues to nurture and support these communities, the future for the festival looks very bright.