When it comes to music festivals, certain factors contribute to the enjoyability and success of the event. A strong lineup is paramount, but also in consideration is price, location, production and food options. Now in its fifth year, Neon Desert Music Festival is on pace to become one of the premier, albeit still small and relatively affordable, music festivals in the state. Now, this IS Texas, so limiting the scope to only statewide is not a shortcoming. There are quite a few quality music festival experiences all around Texas throughout the year (ACL Music Fest, FFFFest, Free Press Summer Fest, Something Wicked), enough so that a savvy concert/music lover could see every act on the major music festival circuit any given year without crossing the state line.
Last year, Sascha Stone Guttfreund and his Scoremore Shows team partnered up with El Paso's Splendid Sun Productions to help the then three-year-old festival move up to the next level. The joint production was headlined by Zedd, Wiz Khalifa, MGMT, Method Man & Redman, and Calle 13. We were invited to attend, although personal reasons kept me from making the trip at the last minute. But when I looked at my calendar this year, I quickly penciled in "Neon Desert Weekend" and made the 10-hour, 700-plus-mile drive to the Sun City with fellow photographer and native El Pasoan Chuy Benitez as my tour guide. This is what I encountered:
The Price: Very reasonable. The event is now held over three days, and the base ticket this year set you back $119. A VIP ticket, which included quite a few goodies (complimentary beer, wine, water, catering, massages) was only $350. There was a $99 option also, in case you couldn't attend the Friday night kick-off shows.
Location: Downtown El Paso. Sure, the distance from anywhere else in the state is lengthy, but a flight on Southwest is cheap, and the drive isn't horrible, especially if you take in a few detours/adventures along the way. San Antonio, Marfa and Balmorhea State Park are quality stops. Inside the festival, the stages were set up in between several office buildings and in the shadow of the new Southwest University Park, home of the Triple AAA El Paso Chihuahuas baseball team. This meant that temperatures were kept cool because of the shadows and gusty winds that filled the area. Big crowds during the headliners' sets did make things borderline unpleasant as we ventured into and out of the crowd, but hopefully these issues will be resolved as the festival grows with the completion of the San Jacinto Square renovations.
Food Options: Man, oh man! I'm a veteran of the music-festival circuit, and have eaten everything from crawfish etouffee and fried chicken and jambalaya at New Orleans' Jazz Fest, to fresh and grilled oysters at Alabama's Hangout Fest, and fried everything at RodeoHouston. But at Neon Desert, it was like a my personal version of heaven. The Taps On Wheels food truck has its "Best Nachos in America" on hand, as well as monster burritos for only $5. Crave food truck served marinated chicken tacos that were so juicy and flavorful, my taste buds simultaneously cried "uncle" and asked for more, Oliver Twist-style. Tacos Chinampa served absolutely delicious street-style tacos in blue and pink mini-tortillas that were downright orgasmic. I didn't even get the chance to try the jumbo michelada cups or the funnel cakes, but maybe next year. Oh, and none of the food cost more than $10.
Production: The stages were just the right size: just big enough to include a beautiful/colorful video wall that ran stunning visuals for each artist, enough sound to vibrate every window in a ten-block radius and still be crisp, but still intimate enough to enjoy as a music fan without feeling like the artist was in another area code. A few acts did mention how they "can see everyone from up here," which added to the dynamic of the sets. What I was most impressed with was that every act started and ended almost exactly on time. That may seem like a given, but too many times I've experienced artists start five, ten, 15 minutes late and end early. Not true here. Some acts could have probably even cut their show short and still been great. Security was also attentive and helpful, even when they weren't busy trying to get people out of trees and off street signs.
The Lineup: I really don't know too much about Splendid Sun, but by the look of this festival, it seems they really have a pulse on how to produce and promote a fun, diverse, and hip experience. Also, the previous artists booked for this fest were pretty awesome, including Kinky, Los Amigos Invisibles, Girl In A Coma, Moby, A-Trak, Molotov, and A$AP Ferg. To me, this fest is a combination of what you would expect at a Latino music festival like Pachanga Fest, with a healthy dose of EDM and hip-hop sprinkled in. Here was the lineup for this year:
Winners from Day 1: If you ever get a chance to see Mala Rodriguez in or near your city, drop everything and make it to her show. This Spanish siren is all attitude and beauty, someone who raps and moves with the upmost charisma and passion. She will have you equally aroused and scared for your life at the same time. The People Under The Stairs showcases the funky and colorful side of Cali hip-hop to an appreciative crowd, while Cypress Hill repped for the hardcore OG rap, emphasis on the Gangsta. Of course, Girl Talk took the party into the stratosphere with his energy and schizophrenic mashups.
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Winners from Day Two: The Suffers (of course) knocked the socks off those kids who showed up early to reserve a good spot for J.Cole later that night. I felt like El Paso music fans really appreciated the musicianship of the band, who won them over with each horn/guitar solo and driving/groovy beat. Royal Highness filled in for Sohn who didn't make the festival due to a delayed flight. The dynamic duo of Peligrosa's King Louie and Bombón's Principe Cu mixed Latin beats with rap with surgical precision, enticing an early-afternoon trap dance party in the middle of the El Paso streets. Big KRIT brought his country shit with him as he bounced up and down the stage with his "RIP Pimp C" snapback. J. Cole presented his Dreamville sound to the largest crowd of the festival, and then Kaskade gave his fans his version of a dance utopia with classic and new hits.
Winners From Day 3: I was a bit worried about the crowd for Los Rakas, who numbered around 20 just before the Panamanian-born, Oakland-raised cousins were to take the stage. But their Spanglish street rap and reggaeton sound acted like a beacon to those wandering around the festival, and near the end they amassed a few hundred people who were inducted into the Raka movement. The new track "Dalé (Meneate)" was particularly well-received. Earl Sweatshirt also provided a young but fierce set. My surprise of the festival was Aussie indietronica band Miami Horror, who absolutely slayed on Sunday night. So much energy and rhythmic dance vibes, and craziness of the front men to jump on speakers and adjacent trailers. The festival finished strong with Mexican rockers Zoé, OVO's PartyNextDoor, Compass, Passion Pit and Flume.
Verdict: A++. Would attend again. Plus there's a Chico's Tacos nearby!
When he's not roaming around the city in search of tacos and graffiti, Marco points his camera lens towards the vibrant Houston Music scene. You can follow his adventures on Instagram: @MarcoFromHouston.