by PD Larson
When R.E.M. called it a day in 2011, guitarist Peter Buck found himself in a theoretical state of “retirement.” Buck’s primary focus was no longer centered on activities related to the groundbreaking Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame band from Athens that had dominated his life for over three decades. Always a restless soul with abundant creative energy, Buck seamlessly jumped right into a variety of side musical projects as a performer, producer and collaborator, working with The Baseball Project, Tired Pony, The Minus 5 and Sleater-Kinney singer Corin Tucker, to name but a few. Along with some leisure travel and renewed family time, he also launched a solo career which has now grown to include three wonderfully idiosyncratic albums and a handful of singles and EPs–all released only on vinyl with minimal promotion and supported by sporadic, stealthy live performances, perfectly reflecting Buck’s iconoclastic spirit and rebellious nature. Within a few years of leaving R.E.M., Buck frequently was juggling several projects all at once, half-joking at one point last summer, “I’m working harder now than I ever did in R.E.M.”
The dust had barely settled after R.E.M. ended when another project soon began to occupy a large chunk of Buck’s thoughts and energy–the creation of a music festival in Todos Santos, a charming little Pueblo Mágico a few hours north of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California Sur, Mexico where Buck and his wife Chloe Johnson have maintained a home for several years. Seeing the small town’s limits in children’s education, Buck was keen to find a vehicle to give something back to his adopted winter hometown and he found in the form of a small-scale boutique music festival combined with a charitable component that would direct much-needed funds and resources towards local Todos Santos residents and their children. It was a classic win-win; have fun in the sun with some killer musicians donating their talents while simultaneously giving a helping hand to those in need.
The newly christened Todos Santos Music Festival (TSMF) launched in January 2012 came about as the result of the combined efforts of Buck and his wife, the Journal del Pacifico, the legendary Hotel California and dedicated volunteers. The first few years found Peter and Chloe up to their necks in the complex, demanding world of music festival management and promotion, a daunting task even for someone who had spent most of his adult life in the rock business. It wasn’t simply a matter of asking a bunch of your close friends to play–which is exactly what was done at first–but there was an endless list of things that needed to be done in order to make this dream turn into a viable reality. Booking travel and lodging, arranging for equipment, myriad logistical tasks and hurdles, even tracking down lost luggage, all became a big part of Peter and Chloe’s life, both during the festival period as well as the rest of the year.
The initial lineups for the TSMF were largely comprised, not surprisingly, of artists within Buck’s close social and musical circles. The Baseball Project, The Minus Five, Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3–all acts that included Buck as a member–performed at those first few festivals alongside the likes of Chuck Prophet, Joseph Arthur, Kev’n Kinney, Alejandro Escovedo, Jon Langford, Ed Kowalczyk and others. A number of Mexican artists also participated (Torreblanca, Twin Tones) as fans and musicians partied side by side in the small back courtyard of the Hotel California over three glorious weekends in January. From the beginning, the festival also included a closing night fiesta musical in the Todos Santos town plaza that was free and open to the public, a conscious decision made to ensure that the festivities were accessible to all residents. The intimate nature of the TSMF (the crowds at the Hotel California were under 500) soon became an integral part of its charm and appeal as word spread about this “too good to be true” event in a lovely small town setting off the beaten path in rural Mexico. The lack of any nearby “big box” hotels or resorts, the distance from the nearest big population center and the small size of Todos Santos all combined to make for a very special occasion that delivered a musical punch and user experience on par with festivals many times its size.
The third edition of the TSMF in 2014 almost didn’t happen. The first two years had taken their toll on Buck and his wife and they weren’t sure they could muster the energy to get back on the horse for another year. A decision was made late in the game to scale back the event to two, more manageable, weeks and the festival continued on to its third year. Featured acts in 2014 included the rekindled Dream Syndicate, The Minus 5, Drivin N Cryin, TorreBlanca and Twin Tones. 2014 also saw the introduction of a local band night, showcasing musical talent from in and around Todos Santos.
2015 was a transitional year for the festival after a decision was made to make some significant changes, both visible and behind the scenes. The main thing noticeable to festival goers was the expansion and upgrading of the venue facilities at the Hotel California. The courtyard doubled in size and an elevated area with tables was earmarked for VIP/reserved use. A proper event stage and upgraded sound and lighting were also added, making for an altogether more enjoyable experience. Slowly but surely, the TSMF was transitioning from the festival minor leagues to the big time, while still maintaining the charm and vitality that had been present since its inception.
The lineup for the 2015 festival also for the first time featured a significant number of artists that weren’t necessarily in Buck’s immediate orbit. The Old 97s, The Jayhawks, M Ward, Drive-By Truckers, Conor Oberst, Dawes, Nortec Collective and La Santa Cecilia all made their debuts at the TSMF, appearing with many of the festival’s “usual suspects.” The upgraded stage and layout at the Hotel California received a universal “thumbs up” from patrons and artists alike. The final night town plaza show saw the largest crowd in the festival history, a perfect ending to a year that saw the TSMF up their game considerably.
One of the coolest things about the TSMF is all of the opportunities for impromptu collaborations and one-off performances that the TSMF format enables and, indeed, encourages. Over the years, this has happened many times. By the second or third night each week, the number of guest appearances sometimes become so frequent that a scorecard is practically required. On occasion, these surprises even make headlines in the music world: Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones made an unannounced appearance at the 2014 town plaza show and last year Buck himself sat in with the Jayhawks for a reading of “Talk About the Passion,” an old chestnut that hadn’t been played by R.E.M. in a couple of decades. As if the lineup itself wasn’t a big enough draw, this wild card factor makes the TSMF a particularly appealing attraction for hard-core music fans from around the world.
The primary charitable partner of the TSMF is The Palapa Society of Todos Santos A.C. Proceeds from the festival are an integral part of the funding for The Palapa Society and have allowed their outreach and services to grow considerably in recent years. One of the key programs of The Palapa Society is the “Beca Angel” program, which provides high school and college level scholarship assistance to students in and around Todos Santos. Every year a number of festival musicians performed a special concert at the Palapa facility in Todos Santos in front of staff, students, parents and volunteers, an opportunity for the musicians to see firsthand how the festival’s charitable function manifests itself in the real world. Because of the devastating impact of Hurricane Odile in September 2014, a last minute decision was made to divert some of the proceeds from the 2015 festival to hurricane relief efforts. In 2016, education will once again be the primary focus of festival proceeds.
Aside from offering two weekends of great music and providing charitable assistance to local residents, another key by-product of the TSMF has been raising the profile of the town itself. Long a choice destination for savvy travelers, surfers, outdoor enthusiasts and Cabo day trippers, the festival has helped bring the joys of Todos Santos and its surrounding areas to a wider audience. New visitors generated by the TSMF over the last four years have enjoyed the ample amenities that Todos Santos has long been known for: a thriving artists community, an abundance of great food destinations, first rate galleries and shops, magnificent beaches within a few miles and world class boutique hotels.
2016 will mark the festival’s fifth anniversary and it promises to be a most memorable one, due in no small part to yet another fantastic lineup (see 2016 TSMF Performers) combined with an increasingly seasoned infrastructure. “Without a doubt, year five of the Todos Santos Music Festival will be the most exciting yet,” Buck recently said. “It’s been incredible to watch this small gathering of good friends turn into such a major annual event. I’m really proud of what we have accomplished in raising money for the Palapa Society and other local charitable causes. I’m also proud of how we have worked to make this an event inclusive of talent from both sides of the border.”
Never one to be easily satisfied or rest on his laurels, Buck is steadfastly looking to the future of the TSMF as he settles into the fifth year of his “retirement.” “We would love to continue moving forward toward making this one of the premiere cross cultural music events in North America.” Given the festival’s already impressive track record there’s little doubt Buck’s dream will come true.
This festival has so many unique and wonderful components, not least of which is its integration into the community of Todos Santos. It is a joy to attend and play, and to which I always look forward to. — Mike Mills (R.E.M.)
PD Larson is a semi-retired rock critic who lives in Minneapolis and currently works with The Jayhawks and other local artists. PD first met Peter Buck on Thanksgiving Day in 1981 at a sparsely attended R.E.M. show at the First Avenue club a few days into their first tour west of Georgia and has been attending the TSMF since 2013.
Some thoughts on the Todos Santos Music Festival from some of the “usual suspects.”
The festival has really taken on a life of its own, it seems. From its very humble beginnings it has become a regular winter getaway destination for people from all over the globe, as well as a real boon to the local community. And each year new musicians and fans come to experience what the regulars all know that TSMF is really a festival unlike any others.
For me it has been a great opportunity to perform music with so many brilliant artists whom are also friends. Beyond the original core of Peter Buck, Baseball Project/Steve Wynn/Minus 5, Robyn Hitchcock, etc., to play the songs of Kev’n Kinney, Chuck Prophet, Ben Gibbard, Alejandro Escovedo, Joseph Arthur, M. Ward, and so many others, in the pueblo mágico, has been pretty magic!
Favorite memories? Getting pummeled by the waves at Playa Los Cerritos is always a highlight for me. The wonderful staff (yes, and tequila) at Hotel California. Tacos gobanadores!
Linda Pitmon (The Baseball Project, Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, The Fauntleroys)
Getting to know Todos Santos and the people who live there has been the most special part of the festival for me. I also love that the festival has become a catalyst for musical alchemy, with musicians mixing and forming new alloys. Oh, and….fish tacos, fish tacos, fish tacos!
Steve Wynn (Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, The Baseball Project, Dream Syndicate)
Last year was my favorite edition of the TSMF. But I say that every year. And I’ve been saying that since the very first one which was my favorite at the time. What’s not to like? Good friends, old friends, new friends, songs worn deep into the psyche, new ones to replace and update the old ones. Food adventuring, the slowing and bending of time, random wanderings, jam sessions, body surfing, order the “Portland” margarita, sleep and repeat. Yep. This year will be the best yet.