[Festival Report] Marfa Myths 2017

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[This took a bit too long to post here. The original publication can be found here: http://bit.ly/2pLj8q1]

Focus. In Marfa, Texas, you can get lost in the sheer volume of culture. During Mexican Summer and Ballroom Marfa’s 4th annual Marfa Myths festival, no art form is overlooked. You’re free to spend hours at the Chinati Foundation, wander 30 minutes north to this lovely place, see the bands (with no schedule conflicts!), or bask in the minimal landscapes that made artist Donald Judd abandon his life in New York in 1971 to live in the husbandry of southwest Texas full-time.

Indeed, Judd’s work reflects focus even if you haven’t got tendencies toward visual art. Right down to the perfect box shape of his preserved property in Northwest Marfa, everything has an angular simplicity to it. Looking between the huge rock collection that makes up the yard and the soft skyline just above, it becomes difficult to tell which side is which. Around the corner is a line of Cottonwood trees running parallel to the ten foot concrete boundaries. I look at the symmetry here for some time, and realize that Judd’s work is the foundation for everything I’ll be seeing this weekend. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on any other exhibits. I don’t feel anxious about the trip back home or making sure I get a good meal in before Saturday night’s enormous showcase. I don’t feel lost.

Only 2000 people live in Marfa, and none of the locals seem too bothered by the festival droves. The dive bars still host a small handful of locals, and don’t get overcrowded with commerce. On the street, I hear people talking about how the restaurants in town will likely run out of food by the end of the weekend. Most cities would implode from advertisements, heavy crowds, and a cacophony that hardly suffices as vacation. Marfa shrugs off these tropes and remains majestically unmoved.

There are no events on Thursday before Roky Erickson’s evening set, so I’ve ample time to focus. I jog the easy four miles around the city limits, making sure to stop and take in a handful of sights. There’s rhythmic bird sounds I’ve never heard. I notice that most of the intersections lack signage. Dogs bark at me, and are seldom alone. Since it’s so calming, there’s a chance I’ll end up running way too far. But, there’s a festival to experience, and I’ve now given myself license to let it overwhelm me.

I exchange words with Mexican Summer staff and the multidisciplinary artists opening up all manner of shops and installations around town. I don’t pay for a drink all day, but I don’t get drunk because that’s not the goal of this event. There’s too much to appreciate. Before I know it, I’m watching Erickson, one of psychedelic music’s forefathers perform with a voice that seems hardly as aged as his appearance would suggest. Julia Holter and the boys from Dungen and Woods are casually engaged with fans in the lobby. Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood is seen running from the lobby into the venue as Erickson begins ‘I Walked with a Zombie’, singing along because she’s a fan of music just like everyone that’s come here to see her and others.


Dungen and Woods by Zackery Michael

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense that intimacy is an obvious outgrowth for America’s somewhat stagnant festival culture. Even the word “festival” is an inadequate description of what goes on during Marfa Myths. 2017 has seen Coachella and SXSW wrapped in controversy, thus detracting from something that is supposed to be an inherent source of joy. In the shadow of something as harmonious as Marfa Myths, the excess of Coachella loses its flair. My favorite artists are in the crowd with me, and are perfectly willing to exchange words as well as music.

Friday is a little busier. I put up another 3 miles and severely underestimate the Texan sun. This is fatigue that my Minnesotan body hasn’t felt since the summer. Zomes’ set at 5pm sounds a lot like this feeling. Theirs is a hazy vibe, playing songs that generally contain between just two or three chords. Their keyboards sound like they’re coming out of a Leslie speaker which enhances the kaleidoscopic passages. The songs each end somewhat abruptly, and several minutes have gone by in the blink of an eye. Afterward, I tell the duo about the pairing of their music and the landscapes around us. They’re flattered, and inform me that they’re actually from Baltimore. Even sounds and feelings that gestate in cities nestle themselves into the ethos of Marfa. The drones are two-way highways between nature and art.

Lonnie Holley is no exception to Marfa’s easy grasp. He croons and howls into the open air during his performance outside Ballroom Marfa. This is a man that cares little for standard song structure. He spits a line or two about “the beautiful people of Marfa,” and the crowd reacts warmly. He details a dreamscape where America is changing for the better, but still “wakes up in a fucked up America.” Both iterations of the word “up” have a particular bite to them, though his voice gives off more wisdom than anger. As his words echo in the desert, I think of how towns and events like Marfa Myths reinvigorate my sense of wanderlust and calm. This pocket of culture has no corporate sponsorship, nor does it reflect anything that doesn’t promote its art and surroundings.


Tonstartssbandht by Zackery Michael

The long form song structures of Tonstartssbandht observe every inch of the exploratory live sets of early Animal Collective or even The Grateful Dead. Brothers Andy and Edwin White come from Orlando, and have a hugely impressive improvisational connection. As their consciousnesses connect to each other, mine reaches out. I’m moving through my time in Marfa as they would an extended solo section or vocal break. Once again, it’s hard for me to believe that their music could be at all separated from Marfa, but then I remember just how huge this country is, and how many other cities are being represented here in the desert. Sorcerer will easily be one of the finest records of the year.

After some hearty bean and potato tacos from the Boyz to Men food truck, the droves move slightly outside of town to El Cosmico campground for Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids. This is a more standard “music festival” event, where people are paying for drinks and dancing in an outdoor sound tent. That being said, the performing artists are still just as much a part of the event as us lowly concertgoers. I speak at length with Zomes’ Asa Osborne about this. I’m quite sensitive to any sense of disconnect between performer and audience, and share with him a Jeff Tweedy quote concerning this. He gives a mirthful laugh, and agrees that music can lose its healing components as artist separates from observer.

A friend and I whip up some bean and egg tacos before hitting the streets on Saturday. We walk by a surprise Idris Ackamoor show outside of Marfa Public Radio. We buy some trinkets and errata at Pure Joy. We see Julia Holter’s trademark smirk as she sings minimalist versions of some of her songs on a grand piano. She’s kind and flattered to be playing before Pharaoh Sanders, and the lilt of her gait makes something as mournful as ‘Betsy on the Roof’ sound hymnal.

Her grace is exchanged by that of Sanders, who exudes his legendary status with each passing moment. Though he spends the first 10 minutes of his set trying to adjust his monitor mix with the engineer, it doesn’t take away from the experience. Sanders spends much of his time on stage without playing, but observing the sounds like the rest of us in the crowd. He starts a clap several times. This is the free jazz of the sixties happening in 2017. If music had a physical body, we’d have seen it come out of Sanders’ band and enter our generation’s psyche. Then again, the “if” in that sentence isn’t necessary.


Jenny Hval by Mexican Summer

A few hours later is the largest showcase of the weekend. From 7 to 11:30pm, Cate Le Bon, Allah Lahs, Jenny Hval, Perfume Genius and Weyes Blood all play wonderful sets. Although a stacked bill, there aren’t many ways to describe the music without the context of the venue. An Italian restaurant by day, The Capri houses a large garage where the sound gets better with each song. Just beyond is about a dozen campfires where people talk through the evening. I speak with attendees from Austin, New York, Denver, and Bloomington, Illinois. Each of these conversations has a similar context to them: no one can quite wrap their heads around the trailblazing qualities of the festival. There are almost zero VIP areas. There are just as many conversations going on with fans of the music as there are with performers. We get right up close for Hval’s moving set of experimental pop, and she proves that last year’s Blood Bitch is a record that will stand the test of time.

The wind picks up something fierce, but the crowd remains resilient. Here lies another testament to how unmoved Marfa is in the eyes of all these sounds and feelings. Nature isn’t holding back for any of us, and working through it to see Perfume Genius perform songs off Too Bright pays dividends to all of us out here; bracing against the rapid temperature drop and our own tired bodies.

The next and final day, I’m almost all out of room to absorb more shows. I jog two miles down highway 2810, and open my lungs to the vastness around me. The sun screams down, but the wind fights back. It’s not that my usual tree-filled surroundings react whenever I walk by, but rather that these landscapes react so little. Even as I yell out the words to the music coming through my headphones, nothing changes. Out here where there seems to be so much nothingness, I found humility and surroundings well worth imitating.

I turn back and head toward Marfa. Myths is officially over, but we hear about an unofficial closing party at a large house on the northwest side of town. The people at the party are one third Mexican Summer employees, one third performers and artists from the festival, and one third regular attendees. We blare some Sensations’ Fix, Blue Oyster Cult, and even Rick James into the evening. Most of the party is dancing, and the rest are at least tapping their feet. Even at night can you see the vastness of the country, and I take the opportunity to step out and observe the stars one last time.

Such is the first Sunday night of a music festival where I haven’t felt remorseful about its end. I no longer think of Marfa as unmoved as much as sagacious. In a testament to the resilience of nature that Donald Judd once found so striking, our surroundings have only changed by a handful of extra tourists and beer cans. Even if Texas’ focused and meditative qualities weren’t at the front of our minds, we at least had the reverie of music’s transitive powers to chaperone us through what modern festivals should be lining up to imitate. It’s as if the town not only shrugged, but laughed as we arrived four days ago. We were left with no choice but to laugh back.

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