Mexico: The Circus Mexicus Music Festival
Dispatches from Circus Mexicus
By Brian Baer
"We're almost there," Jason told me. He could recognize landmarks, but it all looked the same to me.
We'd been driving through the Sonoran desert, south of Arizona, for over an hour. It wasn't exactly what I'd expected. After passing through the Organ Pipe Cactus Monument on the American side of the border, I'd anticipated the sort of dusty desolation of a Tex Avery cartoon.
Instead, the ground was covered in sagebrush, a mustard-yellow scrub, and dotted with those same cacti and their contorted limbs. At the rise of the nearest dune, I could spot the sand replacing the sun-blasted dirt. The ocean wasn't far.
To be more precise, the Sea of Cortez. Nestled against it is the town of Puerto Peñasco, "Rocky Point" (which I'd been promised was a sleepy little fishing village), turned out to be much more.
This was Jason's seventh or eighth trip to Rocky Point. He promised he knew the language, the layout of the town, and where to go for the best tequila. I'd never been to Mexico before.
We'd have just enough time to get acclimated before the festival, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers' Circus Mexicus, began.
The Refreshments and the Romanticization of Mexico
Musician Roger Clyne has made a career out of his love for Mexico. A founder of the mid-90s rock band The Refreshments, Clyne hit the big time singing "Banditos," a catchy tune about American kids who head South to rob a bank.
In fact, their entire first album, Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big and Buzzy, revolves around a gringo's love of the culture and people of Mexico. When the band split up and Clyne formed The Peacemakers, that theme never went away.
Puerto Peñasco is also pivotal to the Roger Clyne Mexican experience. The Peacemakers' first Rocky Point show was in 2000, on the roof of a bar. The group began bringing other musical acts with them over the years, changing venues, until a real grassroots festival was formed. As I attended, it was the 15th anniversary of the first Circus Mexicus. Due to its occasionally bi-annual nature, it was also the The Circus Mexicus 23rd festival.
Having grown up hearing "Banditos" on the radio, I was wooed by Clyne's rendering of Mexico and eager to see it for myself. When tickets went on sale, I couldn't refuse.
The first thing I noticed were the billboards, advertisement after advertisement along the two-lane highway leading up to Rocky Point. They were all in English. Most were for the same venue, a touristy bar in the touristy part of town. I made a note to never go there.
The road widened as we entered the town, but no lane markers were added. Even with our Mexican insurance, we drove our rental car carefully around the locals. Every road we took seemed to be lined with orange cones, the ground beneath us alternating between gravel and cement. Construction was everywhere, it seemed, but I couldn't get a grasp of its timeframe.
Many construction sites were unmanned. In several half-built buildings, the steel girders had been exposed long enough to rust.
We found our rental house, a quaint two-story near the beach in a suburban stretch called Las Conchas, and then went out to explore the city. Jason's sense of direction faltered on occasion, which he blamed on the recent changes to the city.
"It's not the same Rocky Point," he sighed when we stopped for cervezas. "Roger Clyne used to call this place 'a little drinking village with a fishing problem,' but now the tourists are catching on." We looked down the beach, where the monolithic towers of 5-star hotels and expensive condos were clustered. These too were under construction, ever expanding. A new port was being built nearby as well, for the eventual cruise ships.
But Puerto Peñasco is still a fishing town. Their section of the Sea of Cortez is famously perfect waters for shrimp, which they have memorialized with several statues of man-sized crustaceans in their public squares. It made for some interesting visuals.
The festival's preshow began Thursday at Banditos, a small restaurant partially owned by Clyne. They served margaritas with Mexican Moonshine, his own brand of tequila, and the walls were adorned with Refreshments' album artwork and his most quotable song lyrics. Facing the bar was a small stage, where the assembling festival-goers were treated to acoustic songs from acts like Shurman, who were scheduled to plug in and play loud later in the weekend.
As the sun threatened to go down, everyone moved from Banditos to JJ's Cantina, a bar on the water which once hosted the festival itself. There was a voluntary cover charge, with proceeds going to a local charity. JJ's cement patio stair-steps its way down to the water, providing multiple levels of seating. At this venue, the acts escalated to electric guitars and played well into the night.
JJ's also gave a wonderful view of the water. As night closed in, we were serenaded with Tex-Mex music as we watched the fishing boats and tourist vessels come back to harbor. Everyone was having a good time, and the show itself hadn't even begun yet.
Festival, Day One
Jason and I had arrived a few days before the official start of Circus Mexicus and were treated to the sight of Puerto Peñasco between its glut of tourists. The city was growing popular for spring breakers and other visitors from Arizona and beyond. Certain weeks were infamous for tourists, and Roger Clyne's show had become another.
Mobbed by Gringos
By Friday morning, the streets were mobbed with American pedestrians and rented four-wheelers. The locals were out in force as well; there were more wandering groups of musicians busking, more men stationed along the sidewalks to direct visitors towards restaurants or attractions, or offer more illicit goods.
Every street vendor and cantina along the waterfront blared their own music and, for a second, I heard a snatch of a Peacemakers song, "Americano". It tells the story of a white American who goes to Mexico, using his wealth and influence to corrupt the locals. In that moment, as the poor citizens of Rocky Point scrambled for the attention of the drunken American tourists, it felt oddly appropriate.
Circus Mexicus itself had enough bands to play a long day's music show, but it was split into two nights to spare us from standing in the oppressive sun. Even with the ocean breeze, it was in the mid-90s every day. As the sun dropped, we were let into the concert grounds. The stage was erected in a vacant lot surrounded by those pricy condominium towers, giving us the feeling of being in a massive courtyard. As the bands played, I watched the residents step out onto their balconies to watch the show.
After the growly arena-rock group The Black Moods and charmingly southern-fried Shurman played, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers took the stage. It was a cool, moonless night when the red, green, and white fireworks burst overheard, coinciding with the first chords of an old Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big and Buzzy song called, simply, "Mexico".
Festival, Day Two
When Saturday morning rolled around, the trip's toll was beginning to wear on us. The salty breeze from the sea did little to dissipate every day's heat, and our diet of street tacos and ice cold Dos Equis didn't exactly fill us with energy. The Mexican Moonshine tequila I'd been looking for was nowhere in sight. It was sold at Banditos and the concert in four-dollar shots, but the city itself was sold out. Clyne had laughed the night before, saying they had to smuggle their own Mexican tequila into Mexico just to sell some at the show. All things considered, I probably should've been looking for water, instead.
I'd come to Mexico looking for a dive bar, someplace quiet and authentic to soak up the local flavor, but I didn't find anything like that. The Rocky Point's center and touristy areas were bright and friendly, but every side street Jason and I drove down were just cement homes and stray dogs.
The locals were going to the same taco stands we were, I realized. They were drinking the same beer. There was no hidden hole-in-the-wall location for an intrepid traveler to discover. I felt strangely let down.
As we drove back to the concert grounds, many patches of road were rough enough to make me think something might rattle loose inside of our tiny rental car. We were recklessly passed by pickups with Arizona plates, but we were more concerned with whether our Yaris would make it back to Phoenix the next day.
The Peacemakers headlined both nights, each time for nearly two hours. Friday night had been largely rarities, cult favorite songs from largely forgotten albums like The Bottle and Fresh Horses. Saturday promised to be the hits. The only song they would repeat from night one, complete with the fireworks and a full mariachi horn section, was "Mexico".
The crowd cheered loudly and sang along, but as infectious as their energy was, Jason and I still ducked out as the encore began. We listened to the music echo off the resorts around us as we walked back to the rental car. It was past midnight. We knew we'd have an early morning.
There were still events on Sunday, after the official close of Circus Mexicus. The day was scheduled to be a slow burn through the day, with the various opening acts playing sets at JJ's and Banditos, but it was intentionally low-key. The festival had been designed to anticipate its audience's hangovers.
Jason and I were hung over as well, but our car was packed up and headed out of town before the first act was taking the stage. The Sonoran desert was already blazing hot by 9 a.m., and the further we drove from Puerto Peñasco, the less of a breeze we felt. By the time we reached the border, the air was stagnant and over one hundred degrees.
The Yaris was stopped with the other cars, inching our way towards the border crossing, when we were approached by the children selling trinkets. We kept our windows rolls up, politely waving them away, the same as we'd done to others in Rocky Point.
Every street we'd walked down had its share of tiny salespeople, every table we sat at was approached. Everyone was selling tiny keepsakes and knickknacks to remind visitors of their time in Mexico. But I didn't need anything like that to remind me.
Brian Baer is an ex-expat who has written about his travel experiences for Literary Traveler and In theKnow Traveler, and TravelOregon.com. Bad Publicity, his first novel, has been released in eBook format from Porfirio Press, and will be out in paperback later this Summer.
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