The first thing that hit me upon entering the Flying Burrito Festival was the smell. Music festivals can be pungent affairs: If it’s not the B.O. coming off teeming masses of drunk, sweaty music fans, it’s the vile stench of port-a-potties. But the aromas snaking their way through the “festival grounds” (a.k.a. a blocked-off Second Avenue) were far more welcome: the sweet and savory scents of food trucks plying their wares, intermingling with the smell of weed. You couldn’t walk five feet down Second Avenue without getting a noseful of carne asada, refried beans, or beer.
This year’s Flying Burrito Festival was off to a more auspicious start. Last year’s Flying Burrito Festival took place on a rainy day, and while this year’s fest happened under gray, cloudy skies, not a drop of rain came down and the weather was otherwise perfect. It was a pleasure to stroll down Second Avenue in the cool breeze, bouncing from one stage to another. The festival had four stages for music (three outdoors, one inside Crescent), with a lucha wrestling ring set up near the banquet-hall style rows of tables set up for folks to nosh on food truck grub between sets.
A one-day festival that manages to cram over 20 bands into just seven hours, Flying Burrito makes more “traditional” weekend-long festivals look like the overrated pain-in-the-asses that they are. No need to twiddle your thumbs between sets: There’s basically nonstop music happening. Everything is close by, so you don’t have to plan long walking treks between sets into your schedule. Tickets are relatively cheap, so you don’t have to cough up an entire paycheck to go to it. And you don’t have to commit two to four days of your life to being stuck in one place, rubbing shoulders with a drunk throng of smelly people, just to watch a handful of good music sets peppered in between a whole bunch of other shit that doesn’t move your needle in any way. One-and-done fests like Flying Burrito and Desert Trash have the right idea, distilling all the restless energy and choose-your-own adventure fun of a fest down into a bite-size format.
I started off my Flying Burrito adventure by checking out L.A.’s Illumanti Hotties. Booked on the Asada Stage behind The Pueblo, the self-described "tenderpunks" banged out a set of hooky, occasionally dissonant indie-pop to a large crowd. They had to contend with some bleed-over noise from the nearby Sonoran Stage where Jerusafunk was tearing it up. While the Illumanti Hotties’ uptempo numbers didn’t suffer for it, anytime they tried to play something slower and more restrained they had to compete with Jerusafunk’s horns honking and grooving in the background. But frontwoman Sarah Tudzin took it all in stride, teaching the crowd how to sing along to the chorus of “Paying Off the Happiness” and delivering a charming monologue where she name-checked every Western city and state the Hotties are going to visit on tour.
Tucson’s Mute Swan unleashed their wall of shoegaze sound over on the Nopales Stage, located right next to Crescent Ballroom. They were perfectly pleasant, an almost-textbook shoegaze band right down to lyrics about being “lost in a dream” (I’m pretty sure every band with a Loveless or Souvlaki fixation are required by law to use that phrase at some point). Inside Crescent hometown heroes Bogan Via were putting on a moody and compelling synth-pop set. The duo had a pair of cardboard box towers set up onstage that they were running projections on top of. Ghostly Stranger Things footage and fractal images floated across them while they laid down beautiful soundscapes.
I headed back over to Sonoran to catch Calexico’s set. Suspended from the back of the stage was a white fabric banner that looked like it was caught from a web spun by a Jackson Pollack spider. Calexico took to the stage dressed in Grand Ole Opry finery, a look that matched the throwback sounds and vibe of their set (heavy on covers of Gram Parsons and Flying Burrito Brothers songs). Watching Joey Burns, John Convertino, and the rest of the Calexico crew pick and twang through songs like “Christine’s Tune (Devil in Disguise)” and “Blue Eyes,” it felt like there was a rip in the fabric of space and time on Second Avenue and we were watching a classic country-rock set happen in real-time back in 1969.
Following Calexico on that stage was the Houston funk-soul ensemble The Suffers, who (dare I say it) suffered from some technical difficulties before their set kicked off. Scheduled to play at 7:15 p.m., The Suffers didn’t get going until 20 minutes later. But it was worth the wait. Suffers singer Kam Franklin has star power to burn: Not only does she have an astonishing voice, she had the best look of the night with her animal print dress and huge halo of bright purple hair. By the time they got around to doing a cover of Kirk Franklin’s “Melodies From Heaven,” they had the crowd in front of them swaying like the front row at a gospel concert.
While The Suffers were crowd-pleasers, the duo behind Hazey Eyes inside Crescent Ballroom had a much harder getting people to do basic shit like clap between songs. I can’t say I blame the crowd for being unsure how to react: Hazey Eyes had by far the worst set of the festival. The two of them played live music … to prerecorded vocals. And not even that thing rappers do where they rap over their own vocals and occasionally get lazy and let the tapes do the chorus for them — These guys were doing whole-ass songs where all the vocals were taped. If you ever doubted the amount of energy a live singer brings to a room, watch a set by these guys and you can feel that absence. The smattering of confused, tentative applause they got between songs sounded like they were echoing from another room.
The Nopales Stage outside hosted a string of post-punk and neo-New Wave groups: Soft Kill, Numb.er, and Italians Do It Better act In Mirrors, who delivered the most compelling set, a harsh, heavy industrial-tinged show that felt reminiscent of Primal Scream circa their XTRMNTR record. Locals Breakup Shoes and Nanami Ozone played solid indie rock sets over at the Asada Stage, warming folks up for Playboy Manbaby’s unhinged closing set.
While Bane’s World were the last band to play the “big stage,” it’s hard not to think of Orkesta Mendoza’s Sonoran Stage set as being the real finale for the night. Sergio Mendoza’s “indie mambo” had people dancing their asses off on Second Avenue, giving themselves over to the music as fully as the folks who would soon be going buckwild a few feet away for Playboy Manbaby’s set on the Asada stage.
This year’s Flying Burrito Festival didn’t boast the comparatively bigger names of last year’s fest (with folks like Albert Hammond Jr., No Age, and U.S. Girls topping that stacked bill), but it felt like the organizers struck a better balance between local groups and touring artists. It also felt like a great blend of diverse sounds: If you like Mariachi, shoegazi, harsh electronic, punk, indie-rock, cumbia, or country-rock, there was something for you at this year’s fest.
And best of all: We got all this music without having to deal with festival port-a-potties. Ugh.
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Saturday Night: The Flying Burrito Festival at Crescent Ballroom
The Crowd: A wide-ranging crowd, reflecting the eclectic programming of the fest. Indie rock-loving teens, older couples who came down to sway to Mendoza or nod along to Calexico's Gram Parsons homage, foodies in nautical hats gorging themselves on horchata and burritos, even a human statue dressed from head to toe in a chess patterned bodysuit.
Overheard: “Only put something in your mouth that you love” — Kam Franklin, talking about how cooking (for yourself and others) can be an act of love. Thankfully Michael Scott wasn’t present to shout "That's what she said!" all over her monologue.
Random Notebook Dump: I saw at least seven different dudes over the age of 40 who were all wearing Joy Division Unknown Pleasures T-shirts. Peter Saville must be making some mad bank.