by Dany Recio
In its sixth year, Neon Desert has transformed from a small town festival to one of the best in the southwest. Taking place right in the middle of downtown El Paso, the city scape provides the backdrop as stages are built between new and historic buildings on narrow streets while the Franklin Mountains looms over the entire city— it’s a wonderful mix of both urban and natural landscapes.
Comparatively shorter to years past, the festival moved from three days to two this year. The lower quantity of artists was made up by the quality of artists this year. The most popular headliners, Tiesto and Ludacris, saw thousands as they closed the festival Sunday night. Neon Desert does center on EDM and hip hop but excluding its most popular artists, Neon Desert offers a diverse lineup of up-and-coming and local artists.
Some of my favorites were the smaller acts who opened up the festival or the locals featured on its homegrown stage.
Nalgadas is a four piece punk outfit with roots on both sides of the border. They kicked off the fest with an early slot on day one but brought the noise. They’ll play anywhere and are not scared to put themselves out in front a new or different audience. When they were asked to play they saw it as an opportunity to have fun with a gig they aren’t used to: daytime, outside, with a sound check.
“We’re not used to pretending to be professional,” they joked. We spoke after their set Saturday afternoon and talked about how they were among some of the bands that stood out the most but that didn’t really seem to faze them. “I’ll play anywhere for a chicken wrap,” said guitarist and vocalist, Edgar. Their set was a mix of mostly new songs but featured some tracks off last years’ full length, QUIUBO (pronounced cube-oh). The album got some help from BURGER Records, who became fans last SXSW after seeing Nalgadas at a showcase. For the time being they’re excited to play a hometown festival and hope to put out a catalog of their newest songs. Albert, the quietest member, has this to say, “(nods)”
Sharing the stage among the locals were some familiar Austin faces. Good Field has played all over Austin as well as all around the east coast but this was their first trip out west and their first time at Neon Desert. They were a refreshing change of pace. When we sat down and spoke about the festival they were thrilled to have the chance to play an entirely new city and to do so in a festival setting. They definitely expected to be a part of the diversity as they pointed out when they noticed they’d be sharing the stage with Tyler, the Creator, who went up a little later in the day. But for a band that associates its music with good vibes, sunny days, and road trips, the chance to turn an awesome gig into an even better trip was too good to be true. They played a several newer songs which they hope to release later this year. Unlike many of the bands performing on the festival, Good Field will be an easier act to catch here in Austin.
Mesa Inn has a unique connection to both Austin and El Paso; although they’re based in Austin founding members Bradford Hardie and Ben McCormack grew up in El Paso. For them, Neon Desert was a homecoming. It was an opportunity to not only play their hometown but to also visit family. They appreciated the diverse lineup Neon Desert offers and as Ben joked, “There’s really not a lot of guitarists.” Mesa Inn has spent the last year writing and recording a new record that they’ll be putting out later this year. They pointed out that the southwest has had an influence on their music and the aesthetic of the band, to be able to bring that with them and have the southwest serve as their backdrop for their performance was almost too fitting.
Miijas was one of the most fun bands I saw throughout the festival. They’re a three piece pop-punk band that sounds like something between the Ramones and the earliest Blink-182. This is pop-punk done right. The gleefully admit that some of their songs don’t have real words. This was Miijas first jaunt at Neon Desert and they had no real qualms with it. Even after realizing they stuck out more than most bands, they were grateful that a festival this large goes out of its way to put together a homegrown stage for its local musicians. This high energy outfit is working a remaster of its first LP and recording a second one for later this year. They’ll be touring southern California this summer.
A hometown favorite of the festival was Alabama Deathwalk. Eric Reed began the alt-country project as a departure from creating heavy prog-rock so he could begin focusing on music with a lyrical narrative in an attempt to connect with his audience in a more personal way. Eight years and several EP’s later he has succeeded. For Eric, the lyrics come first and the music is only secondary, serving more as a backdrop for the feelings the lyrics are trying to invoke. He’s spent most of the eight years creating the music independently but as of recently he’s begun to build a bigger musical sound for the band and has enlisted the help of two of his closest friends. Alabama Deathwalk could have been the standout artist of the festival based not on genre but overall sonic quality. It could be difficult for audiences to downshift from the hype and energy of such a large festival to something slower and more soothing but as performers, Alabama Deathwalk were truly captivating and really held their own on the Homegrown stage. Their presence speaks to what Neon Desert has to offer as a festival musically. They have given their local musicians an opportunity that I have not seen any other major music festival do.
Lastly, Ribo Flavin, the hip hop jazz fusion ensemble is a perfect amalgam of the scope of the entire festival. Marrying numerous genres, their high energy act is perfect for a festival audience. They are hometown vets and collectively have decades of experience writing and performing all over the city. The size and number of performers on stage can vary from gig to gig but they brought out as many as they could for Neon Desert. It was a treat to have such an amazing set of musicians entertain.
Neon Desert is shaking things up in the southwest and is probably one of El Paso’s best kept secrets. The drive is a long one no matter what direction you come in from, but the trip is very much worth it. The sounds of the festival not only reflected popular music today but also the unique and diverse culture of the city and region. My only regret is that this was only my second time at the festival, when this should really be annual staple for any music lover.
Dany Recio looks like he’d vote for Bernie Sanders but wouldn’t gentrify an entire neighborhood. He’s about as opinionated as your grandfather but never fought a war. Words that have been used to describe him are: young, wears glasses, lost (while not wearing glasses), and hopeful. A couple nights a week he tries to make everyone in Austin like him, one person at a time. (It’s going okay) If you feel like engaging in appropriated rap battles or a couple of twitter feuds you can google him, if you’re into it: @saidthedanny