News Column

Neon Desert Music Festival: Better variety makes up for smaller crowd, glitches

May 26, 2013

YellowBrix

May 26--I've come to think of the young Neon Desert Music Festival experience as the live version of a mix tape. It's a great way to sample Latin, indie and electronic artists booked each year.

Most of them

club-level acts who, when spread out over 11 hours on five stages, collectively create a feel-good, there's-something-fun-to-do happening for the city's growing young population, who often complain there's not enough for them to do.

But it can be hard to see all of those bands, even when they go on stage at the advertised time. That seemed to be a problem on the Budweiser Stage, the one by the El Paso Museum of History, which was a good 30 minutes behind when I was at the festival.

Then again, Saturday's third annual NDMF didn't start on time either. The entry lines didn't open until 3:40 p.m., 40 minutes after the advertised starting time, which in itself was 3.5 hours later than the first two festivals, the better, organizers said,

to save money and get all the staging and sound taken care of. Not good form for the festival, but we'll chalk it up to growing pains.

Organizers said a soundcheck for Mexican rockers Molotov, and some testing of their lighting configuration, were to blame. It may have fouled up the timing at the Bud stage, where they were scheduled for 11:15 p.m. It also may have directly impacted the festival's ability to stagger sets and avoid dueling sound systems on stages that were near to each other, which was the case with the Bud and nearby Splendid Sun stages.

NDMF 3.0 was consistent aesthetically with its two predecessors, a testament to Splendid Sun Productions, a group of mostly El Paso expatriots from Austin, who have filled a unique niche with their festival. This year's acts, more than 30 in all, offered a welcome variety from last year's EDM-heavy bill.

They included the melodic pop-rock of Mexican-American singer-songwriter Carla Morrison, the politically charged rock of Mexico's Molotov, the bass-thumping electro-house of French DJ Martin Solveig, the discofied pop-rock of Canada's Dragonette, the dark rock of British Interpol singerPaul Banks, the noisy beach rock of California's Best Coast and the psychosonic

explorations of El Paso guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez's alt-rock supergroup Bosnian Rainbows.

That's just a fraction of what was offered Saturday. But they didn't seem to have the same drawing power as the last NDMF. Turnout grew from 10,000 that first year in 2011 to 12,000 last year, but it looked as if organizers would be lucky if they got 10K this year. Though I never got an official tally, it didn't look like there were more than 10,000 people there, if that, when I left around 10 p.m. Only a handful of people were trickling in at that point.

Those $70 day-of-show general admission tickets ($5 more than what had been posted online and announced to the media) probably didn't help. This year's $55 advance admission was the same as last year's, but the show was 3.5 hours shorter, and nearly half of this year's bands were local -- not that there's anything wrong with that, but they don't have the drawing power of the bigger names.

Because I had to file what we call a "color," or atmosphere story for Sunday, I didn't really get to watch any acts until I returned to the festival location, which stretched from San Jacinto Plaza to Cleveland Square Park, at 7:20 p.m. I wanted to check out Morrison, who won two Latin Grammys in the alternative rock category last year, but worried I'd missed half her show. I didn't.

She has a light, melodic touch, a breezy, often lilting sound that was a nice contrast to the usual NDMF fare. Refreshing, really. Her voice sounded more shrill than on her records, but Morrison explained in Spanish that it was the worse for wear from too much singing, likening her voice to a "happy rooster."

But she sang more like a bird as the set, filled with songs about love (mostly failed love), progressed. I'll definitely listen to more of her stuff.

I had to leave her show a little early because one of the bands that was high on my list, Bosnian Rainbows, took the nearby Splendid Sun Stage while she was still on (they would have followed immediately after her on the original schedule). The Rainbows did not disappoint, though the sound from Morrison's performance did distract.

Rodriguez Lopez was more like his usual animated self, not the reserved guy still mourning his mother's death on last year's At the Drive-In reunion tour or backing Le Butcherettes at last year's NDMF.

He's one of rock's great conceptual guitarists. That's hard to believe because his prodigious output is so scattershot, but working with a compelling vocalist with a strong persona like Le Butcherettes' frontwoman Teri Gender Bender has brought back the best in him.

They had a strong give-and-take going during their 40-minute performance, with Rodriguez Lopez punctuating her vocal leaps (and occasional stage dives) with spasmodic solos that took flight without falling off the cliff. Impressive stuff.

For all their goofy end-of-the-world schtick and creepy skin-burn masks, Mexican rockers A Band of Bitches are much better musicians than I realized. Sure, they're funny, but on songs like "Confidential Information," they proved they had the chops and weren't afraid to jam a little and work its infectious groove.

I was also impressed by the melodicism of STRFKR, whose name suggests some kind of subterranean, synth-heavy dance music act, but whose Joshua Hodges creates some appealing hooks.

I got a little bored with American DJ Wolfgang Gartner, mostly because he took too long to move the groove forward in the first half of his set. He's fun to watch and I know from past experience that he's capable of more.

But I cut out after 30 minutes, caught a little San Antonio Spurs-Memphis Grizzlies OT action (Spurs won!) at the Bud Light truck, a new attraction this year, and ambled by the Whataburger Autograph Tent, another nice addition, where the line for El Paso's own The Royalty snaked back a few rows.

It will be interesting to see how NDMF moves forward in the next few years. Expansion to two days seems inevitable, and it should come with new additions to the indie/Latin/EDM trinity (hip-hop and alt-country would make for an even more interesting mix tape. Better execution on the opening and stage times will help it grow up.

Doug Pullen may be reached at dpullen@elpasotimes.com; 546-6397. Read Pullen My Blog at elpasotimes.com/blogs. Follow him on Twitter at @dougpullen and Facebook at facebook.com/dougpulleneptimes.

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