Arriving back in London to a porridge grey sky and furrowed brows on a wet November afternoon, your first thought isn't "ahhhh I'm home". 72 hours ago I was stepping off a plane in Mexico City, it was humid and the future was loading in my mind's eye like a movie in fast forward.
72 hours in any far-off city can feel like a film running at the wrong speed. Between the jetlag and the thrill of the new; the language barriers and the map-reading; the imagined palaces and the photogenic glimpses you've seen online; from the disorientation and the disorientating tequila - oh yeah, THAT! - it can be incredibly overwhelming being anywhere for such a short space of time. Let alone when you're gazing at a to-do list that involves pyramids, recommended places to eat piles of tacos, and a list of live acts to see that would make Glastonbury's greenest field that bit greener with envy.
And now this. This "brrrr" of British winter. This gormless stare from a flaccid cheeked border patrol man with flakes of his skin falling into my crumbled ticket which was once gonna get me out of here. Yet floating in the ether are the memories of Corona Capital and a city bustling with busted bumpers, and notoriously loud live audiences (who didn't disappoint!). They're memories that don't quite feel real as I look at my scrawled notes to write this A-Z review, but here goes...
A is for Albion
This summer, The Libertines stepped in as special guests at Glastonbury and headlined Reading & Leeds Festival. Those shows seemed to satisfy the die-hards, but most fair-weather fans and curious onlookers were left looking for the magic the media promised. Perhaps it’s a little unfair for any band to live up to the anticipation that’s tee’d up by the British media, who are bereft of a new generation of stars with swagger and songs like ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’.
There were definitely a few special moments in those summer festival sets, but the band seemed too paralysed by the expectation to really enjoy it. A few moments of their televised shows felt rushed and ramshackle (which had its charm, to be fair), so when the band stopped looking like rabbits in the headlights of the (mostly self-imposed) pressure to perform, the show was almost over.
Whilst those big festival sets seemed like a once mythical band a little out of their depth, being carried along by their incredible rhythm section, three songs into their Corona Capital set it’s clear that a totally different band has turned up tonight. There’s no will-they won’t-they, this is everything those early club shows delivered a decade ago, and then some. In fact, of the 15 times I’ve seen the band, this might just be their finest hour. The duo are on fire: Carl has an awed grin on his face, and Pete has that cherubic verging on bashful sway to his manner that besieges the determined glint in his eye. Every note they aim for they hit out the park (well, technically it’s a F1 racing track surrounding us…) and the crowd go absolutely mental. As far as you can see, way beyond the sound desk and beyond, people are bouncing and spilling beer. Every song ends with the crowd hollering for more like it’s already the encore. In fact, the show is so good that when the encore finally comes, it’s six songs long!
I leave covered in other people’s Corona, thinking about Pete’s tribute to Paris before ‘Death on the Stairs’, and I notice I’m sweating from bouncing around... I can't remember the last time I leapt around so much at a gig... And yet with my cheeks contorted into a smile, I can feel myself eating the words of anyone who’s ever doubted them. Mine included. What a band. Up the Albion!
B is for Beware of Traffic
If you’re heading to Mexico City, keep in mind that the traffic is pretty heavy at almost every hour of the day, so if you want to arrive in time for the first few acts, be sure to set off early. On the plus side, they do have Uber, so it’s pretty cheap and easy to get around the city so ignore my pre-amble about it being disorientating - although the city is absolutely massive with a population of 21.2 million.
C is for Cerveza! Cerveza! CERVEZA!
They say travelling in first class will ruin you if you have to travel economy ever again, which may be true, but being at a festival where every minute someone wanders past shouting Beer! Beer! Beer! with a tray of ice cold Coronas (two bottles in one big soft-drink cup with a lid on, for about £3-3.50, and it even has the stage times on every cup!) balanced on their head is going to ruin me when I next have to queue for 20 minutes in a bar, let alone at a festival. It was like table service for the entire arena, and even when crammed in 8 rows from the front of the main stage another eager to serve you vendor was only ever a few minutes away.
D is for Discovery
There wasn’t a lot of music that was new to me at the festival, and it was lacking much in the way of local music, but when the line-up is as strong as this one, with loads of ‘bands of the year’ and massive names, that doesn’t matter much. I did get to see DiS forum favourites Title Fight live, who lived up to their brash, Rival Schools, art-rock sorta post-hardcore reputation, but it sadly woulda maybe had more impact in a venue half the size of the stage as a lot of the intensity was lost in the open air.
The most interesting moment of the festival was hanging around with a few travel journalists who didn’t know too much about the acts who weren’t headlining. Going ‘come see this with me, I have no idea if you’ll like it...’ and them dutifully shuffling along, only to turn around the next morning to say ‘I just downloaded the entire Mew back catalogue, thank you - what will you introduce me to today?’. It’s moments like that which act as a great reminder of the disservice the media and music industry in general does to elevate the best music, rather than just the newest. You gotta wonder whether we’d have a few more Adele’s in the world if we didn’t keep shovelling Jessie Js and Rudimentals to the fore…
E is for Earthquake
According to Reuters it was a 5.5 on the Richter scale... After a booming alarm went off, no-one moved (I later learned that’s because we were 3 floors up and it was safer to stay still!) and then I could feel my brain shaking around as if it was a sponge in a bucket of mucky car wash water. It was nowhere near as bad as that 5.5 number sounds - the glasses on the table didn’t even fall over. All I could think about was whether Richter is really Max Richter’s surname, before I started to ask how often this sort of thing happens… Turns out it’s quite regular, but it’s when it hasn’t happened for a while that they have to start worrying about The Big One (which probably sounds more like a bad guy from a Tarantino movie in Spanish).
F is for Father John Misty
The artist of the year, playing one of the best sets I’ve seen anyone play for a decade or so. He’s so agile and his band are so damn tight. The album may be wry and filled with lines that teeter a little too close to po-mo comedy for Believer-reading nerdbags, but every moment of his live show is fun-fun-fun. He's a natural born entertainer with a penchant for Waitsian obfuscating and a way with melody that makes him - as Cate our features editor perfectly summed up - like John Denver on quaaludes. In fact, my only note I wrote during the show reads "like Leonard Cohen going down on a nun", which is probably all the description you require to know that I loved it.
G is for GO TO THE PYRAMIDS!
If you goto Corona Capital or Mexico City, you would be a total fool not to go to Teotihuacan. It’s an ancient city about an hour from Mexico City, which cost about £80 for a return trip in an Uber (that included the driver waiting for 90mins - you probably need longer and there are organised bus trips, but I was only in the city for a weekend and had bands to watch, etc...) and entry was just a few pounds. Built by descendants of The Aztecs, this vast expanse of UNESCO World Heritage preserved land has several pyramids and many small altars. As you walk along the eerie but wonderfully named Avenue of the Dead, before climbing the 248 steps to the top of Pyramid of The Sun, you're transported in your imagination to bloodied scenes of sacrifice and tribal drums. No-one knows what it was really like.
[Cue 'Wish You Were Here? ' voiceover] It’s one of the wonders of the world, but you won’t be wondering why when walking in the shadow of these towering pyramids build around 100 BC...
H is for Halsey
The internet is full of people commenting “Queen!” beneath social media posts by Marina, Lana, Gaga, etc, but more recently pop misfits have been defecting to the newest member of Pop’s royal family. The odd thing is, she is quite a reluctant ‘pop star’, with enough lines about marijuana and Nirvana to ensure no-one calls her The New P!nk. Her whole set has more in common with My Chemical Romance in terms of its substance, but boy oh boy does she have some siiiick pop hooks, some soft "greebo-hop" beats for Eminem fans, and so much ‘tude. Whilst her album has cold production, her live show is a warm-if-slightly-reluctant embrace. Oddly, she’s perhaps best known for featuring on a Bieber track, however Halsey is clearly far more interesting than that and on this evidence her time to step from the shadows as a beloved outsider will come sooner rather than later.
I is for Ice Pops
You’re in Mexico, you’re hot, so you order an ice pop from a passing vendor. It comes with a shot of Mezcal. When in Rome...
J is for Just Take A Look Around
The festival, much like the city, was decorated by beautiful murals where in the UK mobile phone adverts would be. Hell, even The Brands like Vans got involved with the event by erecting Ferris Wheels and - in the case of headline sponsor Corona - building amazing wooden bars, rather than just slapping their logo on a billboard.
K is for Krazy!
You often hear rumours about what Mexican crowds are like. All of those rumours are true. Not a single miserable bastard with their arms folded and that stupid ‘impress me’ look on their faces. Their arms were aloft. Their grins were on. And there were a lot of dancing.
L is for Limited Space
I also saw Chairlift road test new material, a bit of Ryan Adams, Pixies (someone should let Frank Black retire...), Run The Jewels, Diiv and lots more, but this piece is already getting longer than your attention span, isn't it?
M is for MUSE
With so much bombast you don’t watch Muse, you experience them. Sitting in an arena will never be the same as the human equalizer that is a Mexican crowd, with limbs spraying in every direction as they air-drum and thrust their arms towards the Gods. Yes, Gods, because that’s what Muse are. It’s easy to forget after two less than supermassive albums that they’re still one of the most bafflingly brilliant things to happen to Hendrix’s legacy. They still sound like Rage Against The Machine sniggering at themselves, and when they do begin to look like they’re taking themselves as seriously as Radiohead, they start playing ‘Dead Inside’ or ‘Madness’ before kicking your preconceptions into space with the ridiculous and ridiculously brilliant headline set-closer ‘Knights of Cydonia’. If you could make a live experience a UNESCO World Heritage site then a Muse show in Mexico would be on that wonders of the world list. Whether it’s one of ‘this world’ is another matter. Bloody aliens.
N is for No Cities To Love
“It’s not the cities it’s the weather we love?” sung Sleater-Kinney on their killer new album, and sure, I do love the mid-20s in the daytime and low teens in the evenings for a festival in November, but I’m pretty sure S-K would have been just as great in a thunderstorm. Tracks from No Cities... stood head and shoulders above the classics, which was a real surprise. Those riffs! That cod-cockrock posturing! Amazing.
O is for Ola!
With a line-up that was about 50% American acts, 25% British and 25% from elsewhere in the world, it was great to hear the little bits of Spanish each act was confident enough to use in their pre-song banter.
P is for Pyramids
Seriously, goto the Pyramids.
Q is for…
Er… There were no cues for anything. Oh and as well as beer and Mezcal being served where you stood, there was also popcorn and second stage sponsor Doritos snaking through the crowd for a few pesos a pop.
R is for Richard Ashcroft
As a massive Verve fan who was a bit underwhelmed by the reformed Verve shows, I almost didn’t bother going to see Ashcroft solo… And yet there I was, singing along, craning to see if there were 5 more guitarists on stage as a wall of sound was bristling from the stage in the most powerful way. Turns out solo he’s better than ever. Legendary, even. Then again, when you’ve got ‘History’, ‘Sonnet’ and ‘On Your Own’ in your armoury as preludes to ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ you’ve got every right to have the cocky confidence of an entire army.
S is for Sip It
Doing shots of tequila is doing it wrong. Order something Anejo (aged) and prepare for a delicious smoky flavour that’s not unlike a brilliant whisky. Sip it slowly, then taste the subtle vanilla or caramel flavours as you breathe out… To be fair, you can do this anywhere in the world but if you’ve
T is for Tacos
They’re everywhere in the city. I tried lots and they were all delicious. Try the moles too. And if you’re a meat-eater then go for a steak with the sesame seed
U is for Unbelievably Cool
Turns out those were the only two words I noted down the last time I saw Shamir a few months ago. Somehow they seem even cooler with a palm tree blowing behind the stage on the last show of their global tour. Their pitched down backing vocals still make me smirk (in a good way!) and his Elmo-as-a-soul-singer-fronting-Hot-Chip cool is only matched by his unbelievably cool band. The only thing not cool about their set was that it was at 3pm and I would have loved to have seen this in a small tent at the end of the night. Surely his time for great slots will come in 2016/17 when he drops some more slightly melancholic floor-fillers?
V is for Very Tired
If you think flying for 10 hours, then going straight to dinner until 1am on Friday night, getting up at 8am to go to the pyramids, watching music until 1am, then going to a karaoke bar until 4am, then doing three hours of writing before finding yourself back at a festival at 3pm leaves you feeling like watching Calvin Harris pushing buttons at midnight, then you’ve far more stamina than me….
W is for Am I Wry? No!
Mew really deserve to be one of the biggest bands on the planet. Based on the reaction, Mexico clearly loves them and their Mercury Rev dragged through a land of weird rock and into the heavens. The new songs had a little more of a prog twist to them live but the overall impact was up there with M83 in the epic-epic-epic stakes.
X is for XTRMNTR
Who would have thought that in 2015 Primal Scream would still be one of the greatest live bands in the world? Showing no signs of aging or maturing or giving any less of a fuck about the joy of music, Gillespie & co treated the final night of the festival to a career-spanning set that should make most youngsters pack up their guitars & synths and go home to retire.
Y is for Yes...
Yes, I’ve run out of things to say now... But wanted to mention the brilliant Jeremy Deller exhibition at The Contemporary Art University Museum. It was a little surreal to be seeing the Manics Unconvention documentary footage and the Yorkshire minors strike recreation so far from home, but it's a great exhibition and a reminder how creative and eccentric us Brits are. [More info here].
Z is for Zzz
If you’re going to Mexico City for 72 hours, be sure to sleep because you won’t want to once you arrive. There’s so much to see and do alongside a brilliantly curated festival with quite possibly the best crowds I’ve ever found myself in.