HoCo Fest, Tucson’s Labor Day music tradition for the past 11 years, is getting a makeover for year 12.
Instead of three days of mostly local and regional acts, the festival at Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St., expands to five days with artists — most of them newcomers to Tucson stages — coming from around the country and beyond.
And the music won’t be the festival’s only focal point: The weekend will feature a guest lecture, a vintage clothing fair, a vinyl record fair, free regional liquor tastings, yoga and some wildly experimental desert after-parties that will go on into the wee hours.
Then there’s the food: Hotel Congress’s Cup Cafe and its sister Maynard’s Market and Kitchen are drawing inspiration from Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy to offer special festival eats. The Ricuras de Venezuela food truck will park at the hotel for late-night eats and a Sonoran hot dog happy hour is planned for Thursday, Aug. 31.
It’s all part of the festival’s rebranding, morphing from a hyper-local showcase of Tucson and regional bands to an event highlighting national artists that are “on that level where they are not quite a huge act but it’s all about the music and they are in it for the right reasons,” said Matt Baquet, whose New York-based entertainment and promotions company, Flip Your Wig Media, curated the lineup.
“We’re going to spend a lot more money. We’re going to try to get these great new artists, expose Tucson to a lot of new artists and make it more about Tucson to a lot of very interesting, very cutting edge acts of several different genres, and put it all under one roof,” said Hotel Congress Entertainment Manager David Slutes, who launched HoCo Fest in 2005 as a party to celebrate Club Congress’ 20th anniversary.
But Slutes and Baquet, who has worked for Hotel Congress for several years helping Slutes book talent into its Club Congress venue, realized that an event solely focused on local bands had a limited shelf life.
Last spring, Hotel Congress decided this year’s HoCo Fest needed to be bigger and bolder, so Slutes gave Baquet the go-ahead to rebrand it.
“I was pushing year after year to push it to the next level,” said Baquet, a Tucson native who moved to New York last spring.
Baquet started organizing the festival in April, reaching out to his music sources nationwide to see who was available this weekend. He admitted it was a bit daunting.
“It was definitely a crazy process. I was pulling my hair out at times,” he said from New York City, where he runs his company and plays drums in a band called Miserable.
Once artists started saying “yes,” Baquet started getting excited.
“It just took off. The festival was only going to be three days and it turned into five, with 40 to 50 acts coming from outside Tucson, bringing people to see our community and bringing different acts that our community is not used to to Tucson,” he said.
The majority of the artists on the lineup — from veteran R&B singer/songwriter Lee Fields & The Expressions coming from New Jersey (see related story), Los Angeles producer/singer Thundercat, Virginia-based experimental electronica artist Elysia Crampton and enigmatic electronica experimentalist Yves Tumor — are making their Tucson debuts. Many have thriving below-the-radar careers, meaning you won’t hear their music on Top 40 radio. But you may hear them on KXCI, which is christening its new Hotel Congress studios as part of this weekend’s festival.
KXCI early this month took up residence in a small street-front nook of Hotel Congress that had been a hair salon. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2, and Sunday, Sept. 3, radio personalities and officials will host an open house to show off their new studio, where they plan to regularly broadcast at some point.
Slutes said the genere-shattering festival, which also features local acts including Tucson rapper Lando Chill, Sergio Mendoza’s Orkesta Mendoza, singer-songwriter Karima Walker and Brian Lopez’s and Gabriel Sullivan’s band XIXA, will have Latin, punk, metal, electronica, soul, R&B and “everything under the sun, but there is no compromises in any of it, which is the neat part of it.”
“It’s boutique; it’s a music nerd’s festival for sure,” he said.
Baquet said there also is a political element to the festival, starting with Crampton, who will lead a lecture at the University of Arizona on Saturday covering hot-button political issues, from queer justice and trans liberation, to disability justice and anti-colonial studies. Expect Camilo Lara to mention the red-hot U.S.-Mexico border issues when he brings his Mexico City-born Mexican Institute of Sound on Friday.
Slutes said Hotel Congress has a three- to five-year plan to fully develop the new HoCo Fest format.
“I’m really convinced that we’ve put together a terrific, very interesting lineup, but I think at the end of it, we just hope that enough people come and we hope the artists themselves feel like it was a valuable experience and ... leave going, ‘That was great, please have us back,” he said. “This is the direction we want to go in. ... If it’s successful, we’d love to grow it. We’ll see.”