Hay Mucho Espacio en El Hotel California
Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Heavy stuff. Dark-night-of-thesoul stuff. Life’s essential questions, the kinds of things one thinks about late into the night, staring at the ceiling when sleep refuses. I found myself asking these questions in a dark room with a stone floor as the roosters crowed and the mission bell chimed. . . .
I’m kidding. Well, not about the roosters and the mission bell. I’ve just returned from a sun-soaked, tequila-and taco-fueled musical exploration and vacation known as “The Tropic of Cancer Music Festival” in the lovely and sleepy town of Todos Santos, Mexico. For the past four years, I’ve been fortunate enough to play this festival — formerly hosted by Peter Buck of R.E.M. fame and more recently by Nashvillian Joe Firstman and his band, Cordovas — with my musical compatriots, The Autumn Defense.
Since 2015, Januarys have found me gazing at the beautiful blue Pacific with a smile on my face as the migrating whales leap from the water and splash down magnificently. The sea breeze, the friends, the music, the heartwarming hospitality, and fantastic food all restore my faith in humanity. That’s a pretty good way to start the New Year. I am a lucky man. “Hashtag blessed,” some might say. I wouldn’t say that, but I’m not much of a #hashtagger.
The festival is centered at The Hotel California. Although the joint predates the song by about 30 years, it still possesses a hippie vibe, to be sure. Boho meets surf culture and old Mexico in a blender with ice. The result is a laid-back mix of vibrant folk art, one-of-a-kind furnishings, sculpture, mosaic tile, and lots of music. Did I mention music? #lostshakerofsalt
Music, of course! My apologies. Palm trees, surf and sun, and the pink champagne on ice (so nice) had me distracted. Over the years I’ve seen and heard some great performances at the festival: Peter Buck, Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Mike Mills, Chuck Prophet, Kevn Kinney, The Old 97’s, Tweedy, John Paul Jones and, more recently, Andrew Leahey, Cordovas, Brian Wright, Jesse Lafser, Matt Haeck, Becca Mancari, Las Cafeteras, La Santa Cecilia, The JAG, and Steve Poltz.
The festival takes place over a two-week period, and there is music every night. The first year I came for a weekend. This year I stayed for a week. Some folks check out but can never really leave. As festivals go, it’s on the small side. The audience at the hotel is around 500 people per night, which is one of the things I like about it. I’ve gotten to know some of the folks who come back year after year, and it’s always a happy reunion when we catch up with each other.
You may be asking yourself what it felt like to visit Mexico this year given our current (#WTF?) commander in chief. To answer your question, I was feeling a bit apprehensive and apologetic — feelings encountered in every foreign land I’ve visited since last January. But in this case, my worry was unwarranted. I was warmly welcomed and physically embraced by the hotel staff as they remembered my gringo mug from years past. I could scarcely pay for a meal or a drink, and when the weather conspired to postpone my return, the hotel manager simply pushed a button on his computer and told me with a smile, “It’s no problem, you can stay here for the rest of the month. Don’t stress, decompress.” I searched my brain for the Mexican equivalent of “Mahalo” but I came up empty. #toomuchdonjulio
Even so, questions came calling as I lay my head down on that last night in Mexico. I was thinking about the border wall. Earlier that day a friend remarked, “I hope he does build it, so we can’t go back.” I found myself wondering how it could be that Trump is in the White House, and yet I don’t know a single person who voted for him. As I drifted off and sleep started its shadowy dream dance, my subconscious offered this analogy: Hootie and the Blowfish sold millions of records in the ’90s, and yet no one I know owns Cracked Rear View. That’s the riddle, friends. #¿quépasó?