By Brian Wise
TRANS PECOS FESTIVAL OF MUSIC & LOVE
MARFA, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 25-27, 2014
Sometimes you find something special and want to keep it a secret. It could be a new restaurant, a record store, a bookstore, a band – or even a music festival held in a remote West Texas town.
Marfa is a small town of several thousand people, many of them artists and musicians, seven hours drive from Austin (much less from El Paso) perched just an hour above the Mexican border. New York artist Donald Judd moved here in the early 70s and his influence can still be clearly seen and felt.
The film Giant, starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, was made here in 1956 and more recently No Country For Old Men was filmed in the region. The nearby Big Bend National Park and the town of Alpine can be seen in Richard Linklater’s latest film Boyhood. Half an hour to the west of Marfa you will drive past a ‘fake’ Prada store as an art installation.
I first drove the seven hours from Austin two years ago and enjoyed the festival so much that I was hesitant to spread the news. After all, how often do you come across a boutique music festival with an excellent line-up and an attendance in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands?
When I explained my dilemma to Liz Lambert who runs the festival and owns the El Cosmico campground in which it happens, she laughed and said, ‘You can tell everyone. Not many people are going to make the trip way out here.’ (She obviously does not know Australians!).
Lambert also owns the Thunderbird Motel in town, along with the San Jose Hotel and St Cecilia in Austin and The Havana in San Antonio. These might be commercial enterprises but the Trans Pecos festival is obviously a labour of love.
Trans Pecos has Lambert’s stamp all over it: many of the musicians – such as David Garza, Meshell Ndgeocello, Ben Kweller and The Heartless Bastards – return year after year. In this sense, it is really Lambert’s annual weekend party to which she invites her friends and a few hundred others. Robert Plant played here in 2011 and I saw him wandering around a year later enjoying the vibe. Last year Alejandro Escovedo made the trip out.
The El Cosmico festival site has a bar, two excellent food vans and, from Austin, a Jo’s coffee outlet in a small tent. There are also a few hundred tents, Airstream trailers and tepees scattered around El Cosmico.
The fact that the festival starts at 7.00pm each night offers the opportunity to browse Marfa or surrounding areas (or get there from Austin on the Thursday). We found the Prada store installation on the way to Valentine, as well visiting Alpine and Fort Davis. Next year I’ll head out to the Big Bend National Park and the ghost town of Terlingua.
This year you could ride to Trans Pecos from Austin on one of Willie Nelson’s old tour buses. To further reinforce the community feeling, there is also an annual Sandlot Baseball Showdown between representatives of the Austin and Marfa music communities. Annie Clark (St Vincent) made a surprise appearance this year.
Two things stick in my mind that encapsulate the spirit of Trans Pecos. On Friday evening Meshell Ndgeocello appeared on stage to make a lost child announcement. This most shy of musicians, who the next day played with subdued stage lighting as if hiding, came out of her shell. She could also be seen wandering around the festival each day.
On Saturday, Robert Ellis appeared with the members of Deer Tick (along with his pedal steel player Will Van Horn) and started his song ‘Singalong’ with a wild, free jazz intro that would have done Ornette Coleman proud. This, after playing a few games of Stump, ‘the world’s most dangerous drinking game’, which appears to consist of throwing a hammer in the air, catching it and hammering opponents’ nails into a tree stump. (You would be amazed just how difficult that is to do after a few beverages).
Thursday featured a strong set form Tift Merritt, a lovely interlude from Bill Callahan, whose song ‘The Sing’ seemed perfect, and a headline set from The Heartless Bastards which made you wonder they were not much bigger.
Friday’s headliner was the Old 97s whose leader Rhett Miller is as energetic as ever in their swaggering cowboy punk. John Doe from X played an acoustic set that drew mainly on his solo albums but which surprisingly featured a version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You.’
Elizabeth Cook, fresh from the Americana Festival in Nashville was really impressive and seemed to hint at big things for the coming year. The pleasant surprise of the evening came from Ben Kweller who performed a really focused rocking set.
Meshell Ndgeocello kicked off her Sunday set with a beautiful version of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon.’ No doubt anywhere else she would be a headline act but here she is content to appear without any fuss, after a guest spot in David Garza’s opening set.
Robert Ellis, who is appearing at out On The Weekend in Australia in a fortnight, once again proved why he was nominated for multiple awards at Americana this year: his songwriting skills are impressive, given his relatively young age, and he is not afraid to take risks (as in that jazz intro). Teamed with Deer Tick, who closed the festival soon after, Ellis’s songs superbly bounded into new life. (I bet he wished he could ravel with this band all the time). Ellis might not have won at this year’s Americana but there will be plenty of awards to come.
Trans Pecos is hardly going to become the new ACL Festival (thank goodness) and it will not be to everyone’s taste, or travel range, but as a chance to enjoy some great music in a personal, relaxed and friendly atmosphere it has few peers.