Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers’ Circus Mexicus music fest turns 25 | Phoenix New Times

25 years of Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers’ Circus Mexicus music festival

Look back at a quarter-century of beach vibes, friendships, tequila and music.
Circus Mexicus showcases mostly Phoenix acts which perform at nine venues throughout Rocky Point, Mexico, for about 4,000 fans.
Circus Mexicus showcases mostly Phoenix acts which perform at nine venues throughout Rocky Point, Mexico, for about 4,000 fans. David Majure
Share this:
Circus Mexicus, a boozy, sun-soaked, seaside multi-day musical romp in Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Mexico, with roots in the Tempe music scene, celebrates its 25th year from Thursday through Sunday.

Tempe-based Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers — composed of frontman Clyne, drummer P.H. Naffah, lead guitarist Jim Dalton and bassist Nick Scropos — organize and headline the annual multi-day experience. It brings together dozens of musicians and 4,000-plus attendees at nine venues, from beach bars and restaurants to the main stage on the sand.

What makes this longstanding concert, located about a four-hour drive away on the Sea of Cortez, important here in the Valley? Several reasons, including that this Phoenix-to-Rocky Point pipeline has been a driving force in cultivating live music here in the Valley and beyond.

Known in shorthand as RCPM, the band’s roots date to the 1990s when Clyne and Naffah played Mill Avenue venues as The Refreshments, which had national hits with “Banditos” and “Down Together.” Clyne and Naffah also wrote the theme song for the animated series "King of the Hill"; Clyne performed it. The saga of their rise to stardom and the aftermath is well-told in the film "Here’s to Life: The Story of The Refreshments."

After The Refreshments disbanded, Clyne and Naffah formed RCPM in 1998. A quarter of a century later, they remain one of the Valley’s most successful and longstanding acts. It was the first independent band to debut six consecutive albums on Billboard’s Internet Sales Top 10 chart and was inducted into the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2019.

The band tour incessantly, pounding out their special blend of rock, country-western, punk and mariachi on stage roughly 125 days a year. They're working on their ninth album. And they're revered for supporting other live acts, using Circus Mexicus to help other bands gain a following.

Frontman Clyne is humble about the band’s and the festival’s role in creating this musical legacy.

“It’s really organic,” he says. “We book people and bands that we like. I like giving people the opportunity to play. Phoenix had quite the dearth of stages for some time.”

Mostly they invite their “buddies,” as he put it, and other musicians that work hard and enjoy “music as a community service.” And there’s a selfish aspect: “I get to see the bands I don’t get to see while I’m touring the whole year and that I know.”

Josh Kennedy, vocalist and guitarist for The Black Moods, says playing at Circus Mexicus helps create a community for bands and their followers. As Clyne mentioned, it was tough to get traction and find venues after the 1990s Mill Avenue scene fizzled.

“When that was gone, there was no meeting ground,” Kennedy notes. Circus Mexicus “really jumpstarted our fan base and what we do now.”

Greg White, a bass player in Central Line and pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, attended Circus Mexicus a few times before playing in it with his former band, Random Karma. He says the show is a “who’s who of the local music scene” that allows bands to network and get more gigs.

“You cross-pollinate with all these other bands and musicians,” he says. “When Roger’s playing, they’re hanging out backstage trading stories and making plans.”

The way Circus Mexicus is organized also makes it easy for performers to pile in a van and road trip to the festival, Kennedy says. Groups don’t have to haul truckloads of equipment across the border, and changeovers are fast and efficient.

“You bring guitars, pedals, sticks, snares, cymbals — if that,” he says. “They’re really accommodating when it comes to that, so everything runs smoothly.”

Circus Mexicus is a family reunion even more than an incubator, Kennedy adds. Many local bands are touring or in the studio all year, and this is when they can all connect, kick back on someone’s porch and jam, he says.

The Black Moods’ drummer, Chico Diaz, says, “People are friendly and become friends with people they never met before. They become family, basically.”

Not to mention, Kennedy says, “We all love tequila, so that really ties in.”

click to enlarge
Roger Clyne takes a swig of tequila during Circus Mexicus 2022.
David Majure

Here comes another song about Mexico

At all RCPM shows, but especially at Circus Mexicus, fans go wild when Clyne belts out, “Uno, dos, tres, quatro! / Here comes another song about Mexico.” The festival provides a connection between listening to the songs and living them. That wouldn’t be possible if it were held in Phoenix.

Lyrics about tequila, beer, cantinas and honky-tonk bars pop up liberally in RCPM and old Refreshments lyrics. Clyne and the band have a tequila brand, Canción (which translates, appropriately, to “song”), and he and the band are known to toast the audience with shots. (From the stage, he frequently warns the Circus Mexicus crowd to pace themselves for the long weekend.)

The songs aren't only about partying, though, and Clyne’s affinity for Mexico is authentic. He hails from a third-generation ranching family out of southern Arizona and worked with Mexican laborers in corrals and on horseback when he was young.

“I think I drank my first tequila behind the barn and probably learned my first Spanish swear words there, too,” he recalls. “I fell in love with the inclusiveness and the family nature of Mexican culture.”

When Clyne was in high school, Rocky Point beckoned. “I was one of those guys who had 40 bucks and two days off and would run down and spend all my money on beer,” he says.

While attending Arizona State University, he and his wife, Alisa, toured Mexico up and down the coasts in a VW bus for three-and-a-half weeks. He also studied mariachi culture in Ensenada, “and that basically sealed it,” he says.

So it’s no surprise that Clyne spawned the idea for a show in Rocky Point, RCPM drummer Naffah thinks. He remembers the two of them sitting in a Chicago airport on a layover and Clyne saying, “What if we took the van and the trailer and set up in some pub down in Mexico and made a go of it?”

Naffah says he replied, “That’s never going to fly. There’s no way people are going to follow us down to Mexico.” He later adds, “I thought he was absolutely insane.”

Clyne says Naffah was the one who coined the name “Circus Mexicus” because he thought the entire thing would be a circus.
click to enlarge
The Black Moods perform at Circus Mexicus in 2019.
Blushing Cactus Photography

Everything’s slowin’ down, flowin’ counterclockwise

Naffah admittedly underestimated the fans’ enthusiasm for the opportunity to combine the Mexico beach vibe with the reality of seeing the band on an actual Mexican beach. (The band, ironically, works indefatigably to create the knock-one-back, toes-in-the-sand, freewheeling ambiance that’s a big part of the festival’s success.)

“Singing songs and drinking and hanging out on the beach: How can that not be magical?,” asks Hootie Povio of Queen Creek, who founded the Facebook page “Roger Clyne Fans of the Southwest!” She adds, “It’s almost like time slows down and you get to really enjoy those four days disconnected from the rest of the world, for the most part.”

It's more than a music festival, fans say. It's a "lovefest" known for spurring longstanding friendships — and even marriages and children. Leading up to the weeks and days before the 25th anniversary, followers posted memories and photos from shows through the years on the Facebook fan page and on the official Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers page.

But it began with one band and a bunch of beer.

Memories are murky on the origins of Circus Mexicus, but Clyne confirmed the inaugural gig was “a kegger” on the rooftop of Sunset Cantina in May 1999. Attendance was around 50 at that one, fans recall, and ballooned to about 1,000 by the early 2000s by word of mouth alone. It was held twice a year until 2008.

Until 2012, Circus Mexicus consisted only of RCPM and an opener. The band’s event manager, Greg Ross, verified that it expanded to three days in 2013 and stretched to four in 2015.

"They’d play all the Refreshment songs, they’d play all of their songs and after that, they’d play every song they’d ever heard," says fan John Teefy of Scottsdale and Rocky Point, who's attended Circus Mexicus for two decades.

Although it’s still billed as a four-day event from Thursday to Sunday, a few shows are scheduled on the days on either side as well. Ross jokes that he and Clyne say “mas o menos” (more or less) a lot when discussing the festival.

Also, Circus Mexicus is affordable, making it easy to go for the entire extravaganza. An advance general-admission ticket for four full days (and two partial days) of music costs only $135, or $40 for ages 14-24. Most fans now rent resort-style condos or VRBOs rather than tent camp on the beach, which is no longer allowed, but it’s still the closest drive to the ocean from Phoenix.

RCPM fans also enjoy the camaraderie and cooperative spirit that Circus Mexicus fosters. They like quoting the song “Mekong”: “If your bottle’s empty, help yourself to mine.” It’s not out of the question for fans to carpool and room together, even if they’ve never met.

This dovetails into the philanthropic arm of the festival. Since 2008, Ross says, Circus Mexicus has donated $150,000 to family-oriented, educational and animal charities in Rocky Point via fundraisers, a raffle and a golf tournament.

Not to mention, Rocky Point is highly dependent on tourism, and RCPM contributes greatly to its economic health, which fans admire. Circus Mexicus, another annual festival called January Jam, Clyne and the band’s popular Banditos bar and JJ’s Cantina, which Clyne invested in, bring in healthy sums for the town.

Clyne says that's one of the most important aspects of his involvement in Rocky Point: It helps the residents, and they recognize and respect him for it.

“I meet street vendors, and they know who I am, and I’m trying to buy some silver and blankets for friends while I’ve got a mimosa buzz on a Sunday, and they won’t let me pay for it,” he notes. “I love that other people are prospering, too, from this event.”
click to enlarge
Many devoted fans of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers sing every word to every song at shows.
David Majure

Let’s go down together

A fervent following is another reason Circus Mexicus is integral in the Phoenix music scene despite its location in a Sonora fishing village with a population of about 62,000. Although people now come from dozens of states and a few countries, 80 percent are still from Arizona; of those, 80 percent are from the Valley, according to Ross.

The most dedicated RCPM fans can sing every word of every song, have traveled extensively to see them dozens or more times and describe their admiration affectionately as “an addiction.”

They’re receptive to new music they hear at the festival, whether rock, reggae, country, punk or acoustic sets.

“Every year, I find a new band that I’ve never heard of and that l like,” says Dan Erlandson of Scottsdale. He and his wife, Christine, love RCPM and the festivals so much that they bought a house in Rocky Point.

John Teefy's wife, Kelli, has seen RCPM 148 times. But the couple have become fans of, and friends with, other bands such as The Black Moods. They’ve put up acts in their kids’ bunk beds at their Mexico home and hired them to play private parties, which have become legendary in Circus Mexicus lore.

Sharing a huge, devoted audience at the festival helps other bands broaden their fan base back home and elsewhere. The Black Moods, who will perform their newest single, “Heaven,” at the gig this year opening for RCPM on Friday, say Circus Mexicus helps put bands on the map beyond Arizona.

Black Moods bassist Jordan Hoffman says, “It’s fun to go to New York and hear, ‘We’re fans because we saw you at Circus Mexicus.’”

There’s no specific formula for choosing which bands to invite to Circus Mexicus each year, says RCPM drummer Naffah. They aim for a mix of genres and mostly focus on fellow Valley-based bands.

“You never know what the fans are going to like or not like,” he says. “You put people on a bill and you hope for the best.”

And fans generally do, packing Borracho Cantina, Chango's, Wrecked on the Reef and the others just as they do Banditos and the main stage. What's more, the festival has boosted a vibrant live music scene in Puerto Peñasco, which was pretty sleepy after dark a couple of decades ago.

John Teefy says, “Roger really started this whole music scene that’s this Tempe-to-Rocky Point bridge.” Kelli Teefy adds, “Now, all the bars have live music even when Roger’s not there.”

Clyne takes some credit for spreading the music scene across the border. “It’s funny to have someone point at our band and say, ‘You guys are the inception point of that,’” he says. “I can’t say we’re the cause, but we’re the catalyst.”

However, Clyne tips his hat to fans for eagerly supporting live music. “They’re another reason it’s succeeded,” he says. “Their word of mouth, their endorsement, their hospitality.”

click to enlarge
Natalie Merrill performs with The Cole Trains during a previous Circus Mexicus.
David Majure

Flowers keep on flowerin’

As Circus Mexicus has grown up, so have the fans. Clyne was a wink over 30 when it started and his fans now have kids that age.

Povio, the founder of the Facebook fan page, says, “I’ve been going since I was 16 with my parents, and I’ve taken my kids since they were tiny.” Her daughter was born in 1987 and still goes every year.

This multigenerational appeal has helped expand the fan base for RCPM and other bands that play Circus Mexicus. To encourage a younger audience, a decade ago it began offering a deeply discounted “student” ticket for ages 14 to 24.

“We did that so parents who are into live music can afford to expose their kids to a live music show,” Ross says.

Student ticket sales have increased 10 years in a row, he adds. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” Ross notes. “You can say with confidence that it spawned the next generation of live music in Phoenix.”

One of those performers is singer/songwriter Natalie Merrill of Scottsdale. This is the 10th year she’s been to Circus Mexicus; she started going at age 18 and in 2018, started performing at the show.

“Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers and Circus Mexicus have opened so many doors for me,” she says.

This year, Merrill is playing a solo set at Leo’s Bar on Thursday and with an all-star backing band on Friday made up of Curtis Grippe (Dead Hot Workshop) and Scott Andrews and Thomas Laufenberg (both of Ghetto Cowgirl and Hit the Earth).

“Fun fact: Thomas actually taught me how to play guitar when I was 13,” Merrill recalls.

She adds, “Going there for so long and being in the crowd for so long and then now being on the stage and seeing the crowd, it’s the coolest full-circle thing.” She also credits The Black Moods for helping her navigate the music business.

Naffah says he’s impressed by the new generation of musicians because they know more technically and are gravitating away from backing tracks in favor of playing their own instruments. His son, Miles, 17, is in a band called Prefect and opened for RCPM last December at the Van Buren. They might play a future Circus Mexicus.

“We’re in a really good place musically with this generation,” Naffah says. “They’re just rocking again, and it’s really nice to see.”
click to enlarge
Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers at Circus Mexicus 2023.
Eric Koeppel

Here’s to life

Even though RCPM has been instrumental in providing platforms for other acts and in cultivating a new generation of musicians, don't look for it to give up its headline spot anytime soon.

When asked if he hopes to play another 25 years, like one of his favorite bands, The Rolling Stones, Naffah says, "I’ll play till my arms fall off. It’s my catharsis. It makes me feel human in every capacity. ... I’d either be dead or in prison if I didn’t have the drums."

Part of the recipe for Circus Mexicus' success, he says, is the energy the bands bring.

"I don’t leave anything on the table," says Naffah. "I go out there and play as hard as I can and as passionately as I can because that’s the only way I know how to do it. Yeah, it’s exhausting and we play three-, four-hour shows and I’m totally exhausted, but I get up and do it all over again.”

In addition, Clyne said the esprit de corps among the performers, managers, venues, crew and more keep crowds coming back to Circus Mexicus.

“We give a shit,” he says. “We care about our fans and our performances and our community. We always put forth our best and made sure it was fun.”

Naffah adds, “We’ve created the community, and it’s become more than the music. It’s become a soundtrack for people’s lives … The music has been a connector between fans, between bands, between families, between generations.”

Circus Mexicus tickets are available online at
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.