Mexico. Ever since I returned from Mayan Holidaze 2011, I had been counting down the days when I could go back – to both Mayan Holidaze and Mexico at large. And I’m not alone. Last year at this time, it seemed like every Facebook status update in my news feed could be reduced to, “Let’s do it all again.” So we did. And it was every bit as good as we remembered, without it being the least bit redundant. We didn’t have the wide-eyed bewilderment that only a first-time experience can provide but, instead, we let a little familiarity inform our decisions so we could not only do it again, but do it better. This was the year I went so deep as to end up in an actual jungle — not just the well-lit path from Building 8 to the beach. But first:
Mayan Holidaze is the natural evolution of Caribbean Holidaze, an adventure that began in Jamaica in 2007 as a joint destination festival for both the Disco Biscuits and Umphrey’s McGee. Last year — 2011 — the event transformed into Mayan Holidaze and, appropriately, expanded to include Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) as a third co-headliner. Having moved to Mexico, the event is held at the Now Sapphire resort in Puerto Morelos, about 30 minutes south of Cancun. The resort has a lot to do with the event’s success — everything from the accommodating staff to the all-inclusive structure to the lush landscaping is letter perfect for a music festival that is supposed to replicate some kind of paradise. And, on that charge, it does.
Mayan Holidaze begins the moment you land in Cancun, pass customs and get on the shuttle to the resort. You can tell a lot from a bus ride. The story unfolds from the countenances and the vibrations of the other passengers as everyone joins in on the same ongoing conversation despite the fact that, technically, it’s mostly strangers. At least at that point. That was one high-spirited shuttle. Let’s put it this way: We weren’t heading to school or a sporting event. We weren’t even heading to a normal festival, under which condition the mood would be expected to be festive. But the mood on this bus wasn’t festive — it was exuberant. One step beyond festive. Yes, yes — after a two-hour drive followed by a six-hour flight and another hour through customs, I had arrived. Almost.
Thursday night everyone settled into their rooms and unpacked. My crew headed to the buffet but got sidetracked by the Mediterranean restaurant — Cibu — and thus welcomed our stomachs to Mexico with a little mahi mahi. Naturally, I ordered a Dirty Banana to wash it down but, then again, I had one of those in my hand before I even finished the check-in process. Let’s get something straight here: a true Dirty Banana is 2 oz. coffee liquor, 1 oz. white rum, 2 oz. half-and-half, 1 whole banana and 1 tsp. of powdered sugar. Now Sapphire has an abbreviated version that is mostly just a splash of rum, a dab of banana liqueur and a whole lot of cream. Nonetheless, it is the flagship drink of Mayan Holidaze and it was therefore my duty to get into the spirit of things, so to speak. I had a responsibility here, after all, damn it. An obligation to seize the day. And to make sure I kept it going long after day turned into night — and back again.
To that end, opening ceremony sets by Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Umphrey’s McGee certainly earned a point each on the assist. Something has happened to Umphrey’s McGee as of late. It’s like somebody whispered life’s impermanence — death’s imminence — in their ear because they all have their heads cocked to the wind as if they’re trying to outrun fate by getting there first, on their own terms. All I’m trying to say here is that they’ve been playing with a new level of intensity and, in fact, some kind of ferocity that they haven’t had since the days of the Big Summer Classic. Except, this time, wise enough for their years. They’re no longer hungry; in fact, at a place like Mayan Holidaze, they’re well fed. But they’ve got the fire and, as such, they’ve been lighting it up every night. Way to take the torch and run with it, fellas.
As for Sound Tribe Sector 9, they played with a whole other intent, entangled in other elements entirely. Whereas last year’s Mayan Holidaze sets were positively charged emotional affairs stemming from a health issue within the band, this year’s shows were designed to embrace a whole different order; something a little more universal — on a literal level. These three STS9 shows were part of “The Great Cycle Spectacles” of 2012 in which the band and their fans celebrate the end and beginning of the Mayan calendar cycle. How very appropriate then — and very not coincidental — that these three shows would take place on a coastline that actually marked the edge of Mayan territory.
“In lak ech,” in Mayan, means, “You are my other or my brother.” It’s just another way of saying we are all connected, all in this together. Not only is it a bit of Mayan mysticism (or, for that matter, advice…philosophy…truth), but it is, indeed, a certain state that can be attained during a STS9 show for the willing participant. Being on a beach in Mexico after dark certainly helped with the mystical part. So did the music.
Late night in the disco on opening night, Wyllys and J.Ha — a husband/wife duo of Wade Wilby on ones and twos with Jennifer Hartswick (Trey Anastasio Band) on trumpet and vocals — provided mosaics made for an actual dance floor. Not that anyone was complaining about having to dance on the sand otherwise — well, okay, so maybe I prefer solid ground. Especially when it’s mixed with solid gold. With members of Umphrey’s McGee and the Disco Biscuits getting down in the front of house, it was the kind of late night that unites. And, truthfully, at this point, who has time for anything else? I know I don’t.
On Friday, after some proper R&R (and I don’t mean “rock ‘n’ roll” — although, that too, of course), and an appropriately big set by Big Gigantic on the beach, we settled in for some hibachi at Lemongrass. The Disco Biscuits’ Jon Gutwillig was seated next to me when David Murphy from STS9 swung by to say hello — and to remind him, joyously, that they were actually getting paid to be there. But there’s no such thing as a free hibachi dinner and so Gutwillig headed off to rehearsal and then, an hour or two later, earned his keep by working up the hottest Disco Biscuits show in recent memory. From the show opening “Little Lai” through the “Munchkin Invasion” encore, the Biscuits decided to show off their finer points, letting Gutwillig’s guitar dig deep while maintaining forward motion, with the whole band improvising their way through rocktronic territory as they snaked their way around segues, including a full body slam into “Spaga” from “Above the Waves” that had people talking long after the house lights went on. And by house lights, I mean the sun.
And indeed the sun was up long before bedtime on Friday night, err, Saturday morning. We watched it rise from the beach as waves of people came and went with the tide. Finally, when there was no business left to attend to, we went and ate breakfast — err, lunch — in the cafe, seaside, and then decided to get a quick afternoon nap in before the Disco Biscuits were set to do it all over again.
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