Category Archives: Music

Destination Events in the Mayan Riviera, 2019

Jambands in the Yucatan, 2019 edition

The saga continues: popular U.S. bands putting on three- or four-day music festivals at all-inclusive resorts in the Mayan Riviera.

Sure, they’re expensive, but these resorts are expensive any time of the year, with their private beaches, all-you-can-eat restaurants, and non-stop booze. Unfortunately you can’t buy single tickets for just one day, only all-inclusive packages.

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Maybe that’s why, for the first time since I’ve been paying attention (three years now), many of these events aren’t sold out yet. So, if you like these bands, take a look at the prices of tickets on their websites.

Most events are put on by CID Presents at the Barceló resort just south of Playa del Carmen. Widespread Panic plays at the Hard Rock Resort (not the restaurant in the hotel zone in Cancun), which has hosted other destination events in the past, like Santana, although there are no other events listed on their website, not even Panic en la Playa.

If you’re planning on going, I highly recommend that you stay a few more days in the area. You’ve already paid for the flight, so why not get a cheap hotel in Playa del Carmen or Tulum? Although most of the packages offer the option to pay for an extra night or two in the resort, the prices are pretty high. A modest but clean and safe hotel elsewhere should cost between $20-60 USD.

Plus, three days is plenty of time in a resort. There’s not much to do besides lay on the beach, drink, and eat mediocre resort meals. It’s nice to get out into real Mexico for some better food choices and authentic experiences. Besides, with a tranquil atmosphere and all the free booze you want, leaving the resort can be hard, and there’s so much to see and do in the Mayan Riviera.

In previous years (2017 and 2018) I mostly wrote about the shows, but at the end of this article I’ll give some suggestions on what to do and where to stay. But first, here they are for 2019:

January 17-19, 2019

Playin’ in the Sand: Dead & Company, Dumpstaphunk, and more

http://playinginthesand.com

January 23-26, 2019

Luke Bryan’s Crash My Playa, with lots of other country artists, an exception to the other events featuring jambands and DJs

http://crashmyplaya.com

January 25-29, 2019

Panic en la Playa: Widespread Panic, with the North Missisippi Allstars and jamband supergroups

http://panicenlaplaya.com

February 15-17, 2019

Dave Mathews and Tim Reynolds, along with solo Warren Haynes and other guests

https://daveandtimrivieramaya.com

February 21-23, 2019

Phish returns for their third year at the Barceló, after skipping 2018.

https://www.phishrivieramaya.com

(You can download a free compilation of songs from Phish’s previous shows in Mexico here.)

February 27-March 2, 2019

DJ Bassnectar headlines three nights of DJs, including the Glitch Mob, during Dejavoom.

https://dejavoom.com

March 13-16, 2019

Odeza and many more at the Sundara Music Festival

https://sundarafestival.com

April 24-28, 2019

Art With Me in Tulum, featuring Michael Franti, is more than a music festival, but in their words offers “programming across seven core pillars encompassing art, sustainability, music, wellness, culinary, and family as a platform to inspire change.”

http://www.theconfluencegroup.com/ArtWithMe/

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Places to see and things to do in the Mayan Riviera

The location of the resorts between Playa del Carmen and Tulum means that you’ll be surrounded by cool places to visit like party towns, secluded beaches, ancient ruins, and freshwater swimming holes surrounded by dense jungle.

You can arrange adventures to many of these at the resorts, or you can do it yourself. I recommend doing it yourself—it won’t only be much cheaper, but possibly more fun, because you won’t be constrained for time and won’t be part of a large group.

To go anywhere you want, simply walk out of the resort to the main road and flag down a white passenger van. Called colectivos, they travel all day long, and for cheap—usually between 20 and 60 pesos ($1-3 USD). Not every white van you’ll see is a colectivo, but wave at them all and eventually one is bound to stop.

Wait on the same side of the road as the resort (assuming your resort is on the sea, like the Barceló and Hard Rock) for all points north on the way to Playa del Carmen, or cross the road to catch colectivos going south, ending at Tulum.

If you want to go farther north than Playa del Carmen, to Cancun for instance, you can transfer colectivos easily. The colectivos for Cancun leave from the same block from where the colectivo lets you off in Playa.

Playa del Carmen is my first suggestion for an afternoon visit. Running parallel to the beach for several kilometers is the pedestrian street Quinta Avenida—5th Avenue. It’s lined with restaurants, bars, overpriced souvenir shops, shopping malls, and more, with the beach just beyond. Public drinking is unofficially allowed in Playa, so you can buy a beer or two from a convenience store and walk around, soaking it all in.

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To the south, Tulum refers to three distinct places—the Mayan Ruins, the small town on the highway, and the beach that’s outside of the town. The town is perfectly nice, but a little far from the beach (ten-minute taxi ride or a walk of at least an hour), and not nearly as interesting as Playa del Carmen. The beach is huge and gorgeous, and easily accessible from the ruins.

The most famous ancient city in the Mayan Riviera is Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Sure, it’s spectacular, but if you only have time to visit one archeological site, go to Tulum. The area and the structures aren’t nearly as large as Chichen Itza, but Tulum has a nicer location on limestone cliffs overlooking the turquoise Caribbean. It’s also much closer to the resorts, only about 30 minutes away by colectivo.

Chichen Itza is too far away to get to on public transportation (three or four hours) and still be able return to the resort in time for the evening’s concert. If you’re really set on going to Chichen Itza, do it with the resort tour, or if you stay extra days, do it on your own when there isn’t a concert later that day.

After Playa del Carmen and the Tulum ruins, the next can’t-miss experience would be a cenote, the freshwater sinkholes that lead to the extensive system of ancient caverns found everywhere underground in the Yucatan Peninsula. You can swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in the cenotes. (For scuba diving, visit a dive shop in Tulum or Playa del Carmen.)

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Visiting a cenote couldn’t be easier—there are five across the street from the Barceló, with three all in a line right on the highway: Cenote Cristiliano, Jardin del Eden Cenotes, and Cenote Azul. They all have low entrance fees of between 100-200 pesos.

These smaller cenote operations are a good alternative to the huge ecoparks you’ll see advertised everywhere: Xel-Ha, Xcaret, and Xplor. These are big complexes with cenotes, adventure activities, cultural shows, and all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffets. Sure, go if you want, but you’ll pay for it (about $100 USD per person), and you have free food and booze in your resort anyway. Check the prices on their websites for discounts before you pay for it at your resort.

If you want to visit different beaches, I recommend two nearby: Xpu-ha immediately south of the Barceló and Akumal on the way to Tulum. Xpu-ha is long and nearly virgin, without the restaurant and resort development on other beaches. It’s perfect for a long, peaceful walk on the powdery sand.

Akumal is famous for snorkeling with sea turtles, with several routes in the sea marked with buoys and ropes. You can rent a snorkel and life jacket right there (life jackets are required), or bring your own. Take the colectivo to Tulum to get to Akumal. Though more expensive, Akumal is a good alternative to Playa del Carmen or Tulum for a place to stay after the shows, especially if you want calm and quiet.

And yes, there’s even more to see in the Mayan Riviera! Like I said, think about getting a cheap hotel in Playa del Carmen or Tulum after the concerts. Or, if you really want some relaxing beach time, check out Isla Mujeres north of Cancun.

Shameless plug: I wrote a guidebook about the Mayan Riviera with details to these and many more places. Click the book below or this link: Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary

Join Amazon Kindle Unlimited 30-Day Free Trial

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But you don’t have to buy my book—please ask any questions in the comments. See you at Phish!

Hollie Cook in Mexico City

Do you like good music? Reggae, specifically? Do you live in Mexico City? Then may I suggest seeing Hollie Cook this Thursday, May 10.

She’s also playing on Friday night (May 11), but the show’s sold out. The venue is Foro Indierocks, a club in the Roma neighborhood of downtown Mexico City. The opening band for both nights is Mexican reggae group Malamar.

She’s on tour in support of her new album Vessel of Love, which features not only her expressive voice but also a tight reggae band. The following show is on May 12 at the Akamba Festival in the town of Tequila.

David Byrne live, 2018: an American Utopia in Mexico

David Byrne played Mexico City on Tuesday, April 4. It’s still early in the tour and he’ll head back to the U.S. after a few more dates in Mexico. Trust me, go see David Byrne, even if you only have a vague appreciation for Talking Heads. I don’t review every concert I attend, not even all the great ones. But this was more than a concert, it was a show.

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The box-like stage was totally empty—no amps, cables, or drums kits. It was bordered by hanging strings of light that looked like sparkling curtains, which the players passed through as they left and reentered the stage.

The 12 musicians and singers—I’ll call them “players” because they were more than musicians and singers, but cogs in a cohesive musical machine—were in constant motion, carrying their instruments as they walked, ran, and danced around the stage. They had bare feet and wore matching grey suits. At times the lights made the suits change color, from a silvery blue to a light brown.

A full half were drummers, so it didn’t matter that their bare feet were unavailable for the music, since all the drums you’d find on a typical drum kit were divided among the six of them. Between songs they disappeared behind the curtain of glowing strings and reemerged with different drums, often the ones in the drumline of a marching band. They carried big bass drums, single snares, bongos, talking drums, smaller hand drums like djembes, thin sideways drums that looked like the Irish bodhrán, shakers, and the array of toms used by marching bands.

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With so many drummers, every song was a masterclass in rhythm. As they moved around the stage, usually in formation, you could watch specific drummers and hear exactly what they were playing and how it fit into the larger sound, even if it were something as simple as a shaker.

Three of the remaining six were singers, Byrne and two more, one male and the other female. At times they played a small drum or shaker, but were mostly free to dance. Byrne played guitar a few times but spent most of the show without an instrument. When he did play guitar, it was usually for a solo. I learned that the weird sound after the chorus in “Blind” is actually Byrne doing a high bend on the guitar.

The other three players were a guitarist, bassist, and keyboardist with the keyboard hung from his neck. With these three taking care of everything besides percussion, the music had an almost stripped-down feel, despite all the drums. Six Talking Heads songs were from their big-band funk era, with three each from Remain in Light and Speaking In Tongues. Therefore these three musicians handled parts originally played by up to six people: two keyboardists, sometimes two bassists, and two or three guitarists.

The musicians were at once virtuosic and tasteful. Elements of Talking Heads songs were sometimes faithfully rendered, like the unmistakable keyboard solo in “Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place),” and sometimes given a fresh interpretation, like the incredible guitar solo during “The Great Curve,” which as the last song of the first encore seemed the climax of the show. But even though the guitarist was obviously exceptional, she usually only played sparse rhythm parts, saving the big solos for certain moments.

Byrne introduced the bassist as Bobby Wooten—is he a member of the Wooten clan that includes Flecktones Victor Wooten and Future Man? He was the glue, the solid connection between the two melody instruments and the frantic polyrhythmic chorus of drums.

About half of the show were Talking Heads songs, and the other half were a mix of songs from Byrne’s new album American Utopia and a few outliers from his solo career. The Heads songs included big hits, of course, but also many songs the casual radio listener might not know, like “I Zimbra,” “Slippery People,” and “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” both well-suited to the peculiarities of this band.

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Perhaps the catchiest song from American Utopia is “Every Day is a Miracle.” With its bright and expansive chorus, it could have appeared on a later Talking Heads album like True Stories, although its dissimilar music clearly represents a different age and attitude. It got the crowd swaying as much as any of the old classics.

Other American Utopia songs have a more divergent style, such as the grinding electro chorus in “We Dance Like This.” But the lyrics are pure Byrne, with topics ranging from declarations of uninhibited weirdness to abstract social commentary.

I have a much better appreciation for these American Utopia songs after having seen them performed live. Each seemed to tell a story, both lyrically and through the choreography, similar to how the motions of ballet dancers tell wordless stories on the stage.

This was also true for his other solo material. In “I Should Watch TV,” Byrne sang to himself in front of a mirror. In “Dancing Together,” one bongo-playing drummer ran loose in front of the rest of group, which followed at a distance, seeming to chase and chastise him.

Besides these more thematic motions, the choreography was a mostly a mix of marching band, flat-footed ballet, and organized chaos. The arrangement of the players sometimes recalled Talking Heads essentials like the concert film Stop Making Sense or Byrne’s jerky dancing in the music video for “Once in a Lifetime.”

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During “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” they began in two lines that alternately advanced and retreated, all while drenched in red lights. During “Burning Down the House,” they formed a large + that spun around the stage, to later break into other formations. And in many songs, the two backup singers danced with each other in an exaggerated tango.

The venue was perfect—the large and ornate Teatro Metropolitán, a classic theatre in the heart of downtown Mexico City, one block away from the central Alameda park. The street outside was lined with vendors selling bootleg t-shirts, posters, and coffee mugs, in contrast to the tall columns, gold trim, and plush carpets of the interior.

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Immediately after openers Mexican Institute of Sound left the stage, the crew rushed out and took away their gear, leaving the stage bare. Four workers with long dust mops came out and swept the floor clean. Then they brought out a square table and placed it in the exact center of the stage.

A three-sided rack of what looked like a lighting rig was lowered down to just above the stage, hanging at its far edges in a kind of open square. It was about now that I noticed the lack of house music. It was strange to have silence between bands—but it wasn’t silent, of course, with people all around talking, looking for their seats, and buying snacks and milkshakes from vendor girls wearing suits and squeezing through the crowded aisles. No beer, though—for that you had to go downstairs to the bar and get in line.

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But wait—it wasn’t actually silent underneath all the voices and shuffling feet. Some sound was coming out of the speakers, a kind of soft white noise, a faint electronic humming just faint enough to be nonchalant and nearly unnoticeable. But as the minutes passed, it soon changed from a steady hum to almost like crickets. There was no ignoring it now.

The crowd kept talking while the sound grew louder. A crew member brought out a chair and put it behind the table. The stage went dark and a spotlight shone on the table and chair. The house lights stayed on, however, so no one seemed to notice. But they must have noticed the sound, which continued to evolve, first into another constant white noise, then to something like rain. But not real rain—like the crickets it had an electronic, created quality. Eventually it became chirping birds, loud and insistent, but intriguing like the rest. Suddenly the house lights went out. The show had begun.

The rack of hanging strings of light quickly rose above the stage. David Byrne walked alone though the brilliant cords and sat at the table. He picked up a big white object—a human brain, which he alternately cradled and swung about, pondering it and singing to it during “Here,” the atmospheric first song with lyrics about neurons, aliens, and hallucinations.

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The musicians emerged for the second song, got into formation, and the show went on, a spectacle of sound and rhythm, drums and voices, synchronized motions and warm lights.

The show had two encores, both noteworthy. The first began with a song called “Dancing Together,” which Byrne introduced by saying he wrote it for Imelda Marcos, calling her something like a “high society lady.” This was followed by the rapid groove of “The Great Curve,” probably the musical highlight of the night. After this, the players didn’t only bow to the applauding crowd, but also to each other.

The band left the darkened stage and returned shortly for a second encore. They carried no other instruments besides drums. Byrne spoke again, saying that they’d play a song written by a friend with lyrics adapted to Mexico. (Setlist.com tells me it was “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monáe.)

The chant-like song was in Spanish, beginning with repetitions of “Cuarenta y tres” (43), referring to the 43 students who disappeared from the small town Ayotzinapa in 2014, a still-unresolved crime widely believed to have been committed or at least approved by the government.

The chant then became “Diga su nombre, diga su nombre!” (Say his name, say his name!), and individual singers responded by calling out names, obviously those of the missing 43 students.

This was the only overtly political message of the night. In the context of his American Utopia, he reminded the crowd of their very real Mexican dystopia.

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In the same way that this show was more than a concert, David Byrne is more than a musician, but an activist, writer, and interesting character in many respects. As a lifelong cyclist, I greatly appreciate his promotion of urban cycling all around the world. Anyone interested in music would love his book How Music Works. And, of course, Talking Heads are legendary, one of my god bands—if you aren’t familiar with their music, get on YouTube and watch Stop Making Sense right now. Fanatic Heads worshipers like me are bound to enjoy American Utopia, a worthy addition to his legacy, especially if you can catch it live.

Thanks Mr. Byrne, and come back to Mexico soon!

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