About 45 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, on the resort-riddled southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, sits Todos Santos, a quiet hamlet on the new four-lane highway running northeast to La Paz.
The Pacific Ocean shores against the west, a world famous destination for surfers camped just south along the beaches of Pescadero; the Sierra de la Laguna range looms above the desert to the east, carved with freshly cut mountain-biking trails and cattle paths. In the town center, art galleries line the crooked sidewalks and slanted back alleys, while ubiquitous packs of stray dogs watch the tourists from under the shade of pickup trucks.
Everything in Todos Santos seems in a constant state of either creation or dilapidation. Brick walls break in abrupt crumbles, and rust and peeling paint pock the sides of buildings. Concrete houses rise everywhere in a slow, perpetual construction and backhoes claw at the rutted dirt side streets preparing them for paving. As thickly as time stretches here in paradise, there’s an underlying sense of change that pushes against the rustic aura of the entire town.
The official population of Todos Santos registers just over 5,000, though that doesn’t account for the many wintering ex-pats drawn to the unique artists’ enclave.
Among those ex-pats, Peter Buck may be the most widely known. In Todos Santos, it’s less for his seminal role as R.E.M.’s guitarist than for his creation of the Todos Santos Music Festival and the work he’s done to raise money for the local Palapa Society, a multicultural nonprofit that runs programs for children in the town.
Like the town, the music festival carries its own surreal tinge. First organized last year by Buck and his fiancée, Chloe Johnson, it’s less a music fest than a gathering of Buck’s compatriots to take over the town for three weekends in loosely organized jam sessions. For most of January, Todos Santos becomes an odd scene of rock stars wandering among the taco stands and dirt roads, while playing nightly to small, enthusiastic crowds.
Life & How To Live It
It’s unclear just how familiar the audiences are with the artists playing. Some, like Robyn Hitchcock and Chuck Prophet, have become such fixtures in town over the weeks that the crowds sing along fervently by their third or fourth set of the festival. Other artists, such as Ben Gibbard, who plays special guest on the final weekend, aren’t nearly as well recognized as they would be at almost any other event.
More than the draw of any of the acts – Alejandro Escovedo, Jon Langford, the Posies, Joseph Arthur, the Minus 5, the Elected, Kevn Kinney from Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ – the festival thrives on its experiential merit, not only of the setting but the intimate and collaborative sets and effusive jams. Whether it’s Escovedo and Prophet bantering “Always a Friend,” or the Baseball Project with Hitchcock, Langford, and Austin’s Randy Franklin belting Beatles sing-alongs, the thrill lingers in the haphazardly scripted moments.
For nearly all the artists, Buck is the running thread through the sets. Inevitably the guitarist takes the stage to join the constant rotation of players, his baja shirts untucked beneath a black pinstripe sports coat as his white hair flings damply along to the rhythm of the marginally rehearsed songs. Ever the sideman, Buck seems uncomfortably reluctant in the spotlight, yet he beams behind the entirety of the festivities with a kind of patriarchal pride.
Thursday and Friday nights, the players pack onto the small stage at the Hotel California, a posh hotel and restaurant on the main street, with a courtyard filled to about 300 fans. The donation’s only about $2 to get in for a lineup that seems more suggested than scheduled.
The smaller Hotel California shows come to feel like rehearsals for the main Saturday night event in the town plaza. Across from the mission church, the plaza transforms with a professionally rigged stage and lighting, the palm trees covered in colored lights and vendors set up around the edges.
Most impressively, it becomes a gathering of the entire tapestry of the Todos Santos community: locals with their families; the American and Canadian ex-pats and boomer retirees; teenagers drinking and flirting in the back of the crowd; the surfers up from the beaches; tourists and artists and dread-locked nomad kids, all amassed for the free night of music.
The final night of the festival features Kevn Kinney taking the stage first, his long hair streaming from his trucker hat and nasally clipped Southern twang setting a fitting anomaly. As Escovedo howls later on “Chelsea Hotel ‘78,” “It makes no sense! It makes perfect sense!” Joseph Arthur plays madcap cosmic evangelist as he preaches gonzo sermons to the crowd with “I Miss the Zoo” and “Travel as Equals.” Escovedo tears through both rockers (“Man of the World”) and ballads (“Arizona,” “San Antonio Rain”).
Ben Gibbard gathers an all-star backing with Buck, Superchunk’s Jon Wurster, the ever-present Scott McCaughey, and Fenway Park organist/Baseball Project utility player Josh Kantor, offering up songs from his new solo LP, Former Lives, and 2009’s Kerouac-inspired collaboration with Jay Farrar, One Fast Move or I’m Gone. Gibbard’s set rolls into the night’s apex as he shifts to acoustic guitar and Mike Mills takes up the microphone to sing R.E.M.’s “Near Wild Heaven” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.”
Prophet rounds his set with a raucous “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp),” which becomes a nightly crowd-stoking, close-out affair, but it’s the young Mexico City bands that steal the free Saturday plaza shows.
The weekend before, the unhinged surfiachi extravaganza of the Twin Tones upstaged the Posies as headliners. This Saturday, the horn, flute, and keyboard-based sextet Torreblanca keeps the plaza dancing with its dramatic, progressive pop until almost 2am, the sound reverberating off the walls of the church and throughout the entire town.
We All Go Back to Where We Belong
Sunday morning, the stage is gone from the town plaza. Music from the church billows through the town and cloudless sky, where the night before rock & roll bounded through the streets.
As church lets out, children spill into to the plaza taking up skateboards and bikes, and vendors emerge with carts of candy and ice cream. A few tourists wander by, weaving among the small souvenir shops and taking pictures with a passing curiosity.
The changes here are palpable, if still not entirely evident. In 2006, Todos Santos was declared a “Pueblo Mágico,” guaranteeing that certain restrictions were placed on how the town could be developed but also delivering substantial government funding for tourism promotion. On the outskirts of town, a giant bypass is under construction, designed to divert traffic from the new highway around the town.
New communities are planned for development just beyond the town limits, and acres are being devoted for organic farming. There’s a commitment to find a way of sharing the unique experience of Todos Santos without infringing upon it.
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