Saturday's second Neon Desert Music Festival was all about the beat — and the afternoon heat.
Its 38 acts, spread out over nearly 15 hours on five stages in Downtown El Paso, certainly fit neatly into the young festival's proudly international mix of indie rock, Latin rock and electronic. Performers included a headlining DJ set by Moby on one end of the festival site, a homecoming gig for newly reunited El Paso rockers Sparta on the other, plus sets by an international cast of butt-shakers for this cross-border dance party, including Austin electro-funkateers Ghostland Observatory, Brazil's the Twelves, Canada's A-Trak, Mexico's Belanova, Spain's Pinker Tones and Venezuela's La Vida Boheme.
It looked pretty diverse on paper, but was less so in reality. At least, that was the case with the 13 acts I took in over the approximately 10 hours I spent there Saturday.
The musical differences were more distinct at the first festival in 2011, which drew nearly 11,000 people to hear the stratospheric progressive rock of the hometown Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group, folk-rooted Mexican rockers Kinky and British dance-rockers Dirty Vegas, among numerous others.
With some exceptions, most of the acts I heard Saturday worked in serious service of the groove. Three of the event's five stages were devoted largely to electronic dance music of various kinds, with related sounds on the other two. The Silent Disco Stage was the most unique, with seemingly mute DJs playing beats heard only on wireless headphones supplied to those in the caged area inside San Jacinto Plaza.
Electronic dance music is huge right now, especially with the high school and college-aged crowds for which NDMF is built, so it's understandable that producers Splendid Sun Productions would lean more heavily in that direction. I don't know if it sold more of the $55 tickets. They were hoping for 15,000 people. The crowds seemed larger than last year, but probably not that much larger. I'm guessing they got between 12,000 and 13,000.
While many of the acts played hour-long sets in the evening, when a nice breeze took the edge of the afternoon near 100-degree heat, about 30 minutes would have sufficed. There was a sameness to a lot of the music, not necessarily a lot of depth or skilled song craft. Of course, depth isn't exactly something you'd expect from groups more intent on having, and creating, a good time, which is EDM's bottom line.
Still, there were some notable exceptions. Mexico's Teri "Gender Bender" Suarez, theatrical frontwoman of the tuneful power punk trio Le Butcherettes, gave the standout performance of the day. It's not hard to see why audiences at this year's Coachella and last year's Lollapalooza festivals took a shine to her.
Backed by the steady drumming of Lia Braswell and strong, rhythmic bass work of the aforementioned Rodriguez Lopez (looking and sounding better than he did when At the Drive-In) played here in April), Suarez spewed out personal cries for justice, respect, equality and dignity, be it from a lover or macho society.
Suarez, who performs in dresses symbolic of gender repression, looked like a young, female version of AC/DC's Angus Young crossed with prototypical punker Iggy Pop. She stomped, prowled and lurked around the too-small Miller Lite stage during a hot, sweaty, hour-long set in 97-degree heat.
Spitting cathartic venom during "I'm Getting Sick of You," she turned her back on the rowdy crowd in front of the stage and plunged fearlessly into their awaiting hands.
There is real content and talent behind what easily could be the fashionable rage of an angry young woman. "The Leibniz Language" is a surprisingly complex post-punk song, episodic in nature and one that really showcased Suarez's powerful vocals as she turned the line "put me back together" from a howl to a plead in a matter of syllables.
For pure fun, it was hard to beat Mexican Institute of Sound, whose 7 p.m. set on the oi915.com stage drew one of the largest and most enthusiastic crowds to that point of the festival. Frontman Camilo Lara and his taut rhythm section had the knowledgeable crowd in the palm of their hands as he brought a near-manic energy to a style of dance music that encompasses everything from cumbia to '80s pop.
Oregon's Yacht, who claim a spiritual link to Marfa (whose Boyd Elder designed one of their album covers) picked up that '80s spirit with a spirited set of updated new wave with strong echoes of early Talking Heads. Singer Claire L. Evans, a visual artist and science writer as well, had a kind of geeky girl energy to go with her easy-on-the-ears vocals.
She also had the line of the night. Noting the banks and other buildings lining the festival site's periphery, she commented on being "in the center of commerce and industry, subverted into zone (devoted to) autonomous fun."
Of course, fun was really the guiding principle of the day. It's what electronic-oriented acts like Austin duo Ghostland Observatory, who perform in silhouette while '70s arena rock-style lasers light up the area, are all about. But after about a half hour, it started to sound repetitious.
Also disappointing: The conventional rock of Argentina's Babasonicos sounded dated (an hourlong delay due to the late arrival of their gear, probably didn't help). Venezuela's La Vida Boheme had its own sense of fun (singer Henry D'Arthenay joked they are also known as Menudo), but their weak vocals dragged down their otherwise catchy blend of pop and rock.
Of course, about 30 minutes of their high-energy synthesizer-infused thump was about enough before it started to sound the same.
"Fun" was not, however, the word to describe what it must have been like for Sparta frontman Jim Ward, whose midnight performance on the Miller Lite Stage was marred by a cold-ravaged voice, which was obvious from opening song "Guns of Memorial Park."
It clearly affected the singer-guitarist, who tends to sing full-throttle on Sparta's post-emo catalog. He tossed his guitar behind him in frustration on two occasions, got the crowd to help him finish the chorus of "Tensioning," apologized profusely for being "not healthy in the throat," vowed to "destroy my voice" for the crowd and later promised to return to NDMF "if not next year than the year after that" to make up for it.
Ward and the band, which reunited last November, gamely struggled to find their collective footing. They'd only played five shows prior to Saturday, including three last week in California and Arizona, but didn't appear to have the confidence to give the singer a break by stretching out the songs. Sheer determination, and some hot tea, got them through it. By the time they lit into new song "Chemical Feel," Sparta had regained some confidence.
NDMF is unique, a truly international festival that caters to young people and celebrates the area's bicultural identity. Organizers did a good job of making an unusual, zigzag-shaped site area work and they learned from the first one last year, adding more vendors and amenities, including free water stations.
There's still room for improvement going into the third one. It would be nice if ticketholders could come and go from the site throughout such a long, hot day. Lollapalooza-style misters would be a nice touch. So would more variety on the musical menu.