R.E.M.’s Peter Buck hosts second-annual fest where everyone has a great time for a good cause.
So what do you do if you spent the past three decades in one of the world’s biggest rock bands, and it suddenly (but amicably) dissolves? If you’re Peter Buck – and a rocker who just wants to jam – you gather a bunch of your like-minded alt-rock buddies and head south for three weeks of tequila-soaked music and good times in the surf-town-cum-artist-colony of Todos Santos, Mexico. And besides raisin’ a bit of hell with the town’s laidback locals and the colorful expat community as part of the first-annual Todos Santos Music Festival, you also raise money for a charity that helps the children of this officially recognized “Pueblo Magico (Magic Village)” on the Pacific Ocean near the tip of the Baja peninsula.
Then for an encore, you plan do it all over again the following year, only better. The 2012 Todos Santos Music Festival took place over three weekends in January, with performances three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday. All shows were held at the historic Hotel California, with a grand finale in the town’s traditional plaza on closing night. Buck played every show, including backing eccentric English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, American roots-rockers Chuck Prophet and Kevn Kenney, former Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett’s band The Elected and sets with The Baseball Project and The Minus 5, super-groups of sorts that count Buck as a member.
For the 2013 Todos Santos Music Festival, which is again spread over three weekends running from January 10 to 26, Buck has brought back fest alumni. In addition to shows at Hotel California and the town plaza, this year’s festival features intimate solo shows at the boutique hotel Rancho Pescadero [editor’s note: tickets still available], showcasing Posie frontman Ken Stringfellow for a private concert and dinner for hotel guests. The festival’s full line-up includes Stringfellow’s power-pop band The Posies, indie icon Joseph Arthur, revered singer-songwriter-rocker Alejandro Escovedo, musician-artist-writer and former Mekons member Jon Langford, and the Mexican rock bands Torreblanca and the Twin Tones. But it’s not like Buck had to do any arm-twisting to get the original artists to return. “Everyone that was there last year is super excited about coming back,”” Buck tells wandermelon. “They immediately said, ‘I’m definitely coming back. Which week do you want me?’”
Taken with Todos Santos
Like his musician friends, Buck was taken with the town when he first visited Todos Santos in 2006 with his fiancée and festival organizer Chloe Johnson. The couple bought a house within walking distance of the town’s half dozen or so remarkable restaurants and quirky cantinas and quickly became enmeshed in the vibrant local arts scene. “I like the whole downtown walking around thing,” Buck says. “I didn’t want to have to use my car.”
“There are so many things I like about the town,” he adds. “It’s got all the good things of a small town, plus a lot of the good things of a city: really good restaurants, art galleries and openings, interesting people. I like the fact that a lot of the people I know there are photographers and painters. And no one talks about TV shows, the stock market, ridiculous political interplay and really bad movies like in the U.S. That’s all behind you.” While the town has long-running and high-profile annual arts and film festivals, one element was missing. “I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of music going on,” Buck recalls, “which is why I wanted to bring some of my friends down and start something. I had talked about doing some charity work when my life got a little simpler. So it seemed like I could do two things I wanted to do at once: Play music every day for a while – and also go home to my own bed every night, which is really nice – and raise some money and change the town the better.”
Through sponsorships, donations and ticket and merchandise sales, the 2012 Todos Santos Music Festival raised $50,000 for the local charitable organization The Palapa Society, which provides educational and after-school activities to children in the community. This year, Buck hopes to double that amount and has brought in big sponsors like concert promoter LiveNation and television broadcast giant Televisa. While VIP tickets to the performances are available, admission to the Hotel California shows is just $25 MX pesos (about $2 U.S.) and the beach and plaza concerts are free.
Growing the Festival
Even while growing the festival, Buck says he plans to keep it in line with the host town’s low-key vibe. “This time we had a little more time to put things together,” Buck says, adding that the 2012 festival was planned and executed in only nine weeks, largely by Johnson and a volunteer staff. “But last year was super fun and we don’t want to get too far away from what it was – a small thing, everyone really enjoying themselves.” He adds that he wants the festival to “really focus on the locals and the people who come down for it. I hope it benefits the town as well as the kids.” And that includes bringing in more Mexican bands. Buck caught a set by Torreblanca at SXSW in Austin last March and invited the band to play the Todos Santos Music Festival for the first time. “We’re trying to make it more palatable to younger Mexicans and include some Mexican bands, as opposed to elderly white guys,” he says. “I thought it would be cool if some of the local kids saw that this is something that they could do too, and it’s not worlds away from their world.”
Buck reticently acknowledges that he paid for most of the initial festival’s expenses out of his own pocket, but proudly declares that “not a penny of expenses was paid for through donations. People were incredibly generous,” he says. “I was surprised how much people donated at the shows and there were a couple of large surprise donations. This year I think we could do better than that. And a lot of good with the money raised. The Palapa Society are the ones doing the real work, so being able to help out financially is a cool thing for me,” he adds. “And my friends love coming here to play. Now they’re fighting to come down and be involved!”