The Neon Desert Music Festival — whose eighth edition took place in Downtown El Paso, Texas — is anything but typical. Attracting more than 20,000 people each day to enjoy music, art, food and more out in the streets of this border city, the fest features one of the most diverse lineups around, spanning rap, rock and Latin music in equal doses.
Music fans from the area flocked to see performances by rappers like Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne, Latin trap/reggaeton artists like Farruko, Mexican indie bands like Caloncho, Latin rock pioneers Cafe Tacuba, and even some throwback alternative with Third Eye Blind.
Check out the best moments of the weekend’s Day 1 (Saturday, May 26) and Day 2 (Sunday, May 27):
1. Lil Wayne brings familiar faces
While the world was talking about another member of Lil Wayne‘s Young Money roster, Drake, releasing “Duppy Freestyle” in response to Pusha T this weekend, Weezy brought out some nearly forgotten Young Money faces to assist his set at Neon Desert. Rappers Mack Maine and Gudda Gudda joined him onstage to assist with posse cut “Every Girl,” an early hit from Young Money before Drizzy made our hotlines bling or Nicki Minaj dated Eminem. Wayne seemed truly amazed and appreciative of how many people were squeezed into the streets of Downtown El Paso. His performance ran through his long list of hits, from his Cash Money Records days through to his successful run of mixtapes and hit singles like “Lollipop.”
2. At the Drive-In makes hometown proud
Before The Mars Volta married prog-rock with salsa and free-form jazz, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala were members of the highly influential post-punk outfit At the Drive-In. The band broke up shortly after the release of its major-label debut, Relationship of Command, much to the disappointment of fans and critics who had dubbed the El Paso band “the next big thing.” More than 10 years later, a reunited ATDI have been selling out concerts in the U.S. and Europe, and the band returned to its hometown Saturday. During its late-’90s rise, the raucous five-piece band would have been lucky to attract 100 people to a sweat DIY punk club in its own city. On Day 1, a few thousand El Pasoans finally got a taste of what they missed, and what could have been.
3. Caloncho beats the heat
Mexican folk-indie singer-songwriter Oscar Alfonso Castro, better known by his stage name Caloncho, closed out the Paso del Norte Stage, one of the fest’s three main stages. Caloncho has performed in Ciudad Juarez, which is less than a 30-minute walk from the stage, but had never performed in the West Texas town of El Paso.
4. Art, skateboarding, border eats and — luchadores
Much like the city that inspired it, it’s hard to boil down the Neon Desert experience to one moment. With an eclectic variety of art installations, a mini-skatepark, water fountains to splash around and cool off in, the mix of American and Mexican food and more, organizers make sure to give fans a big festival feel on a boutique festival budget. But name another U.S. festival that gives you a chance to take a break from the music to watch the high-flying masked men of Mexican wrestling. That about sums it up.
5. Martin Garrix helps Neon Desert live up to its name
Dutch DJ Martin Garrix closed out Day 1 of Neon Desert Music Festival. The “Animals” producer lit up the desert sky with a stunning light show to go with his festival-ready beats. So what that the festival’s gates opened earlier in the afternoon? Well after midnight, fans danced, fist-pumped and jumped on command more than nine hours later as Garrix, his music and his lights helped Neon Desert live up to its name.
1. Cuco shows his stuff
The sun was still very much in effect when Los Angeles dream-pop master Omar Banos, better known as Cuco, took the Paso Del Norte Stage. But that didn’t stop a few thousand of his loyal fans from coming out to hear his chill songs about teen love, friends and cruising the streets of Hawthorne, Calif., in his Honda SUV. The levity of being a first-generation Mexican-American, performing in front of a largely Latinx audience in this border town didn’t escape the 19-year-old.
“This is hella important,” Cuco said, as he wrapped up his set to chants of “O-tra! O-tra!” from the crowd. “I’m a first-generation immigrant. My parents are from Mexico. I’m doing this all independent. F— the industry. F— the suits and f— all the bullshit. I’m here to be creative.”
2. Bomba Estéreo moves feet and minds
What do you get when you mix a little electronic music, reggaeton, traditional cumbia and sprinkle in some dub reggae psychedelia? Colombia’s Bomba Estéreo.
Singer Li Saumet declared, “Esta concierto ya ha comenzado” (“This concert has now begun”) — and so did the dancing. As fans lined nearly two city blocks to jump, sing along and cumbia, and the sun began to set, it definitely began to feel like Day 2 was shaping up to be a memorable one.
3. Café Tacuba gives them what they want
Veteran Mexico City rock-alternativo band Café Tacuba showed why their eclectic sounds have been touching music fans for almost 30 years. The band, led by diminutive singer Rubén Albarran, performed 90 minutes of fan favorites, alternative hits and more.
Parents, children and everyone in between sang along to songs spanning the band’s long career, like the classic “La Ingrata” and the New Wave-y “1, 2, 3” off its latest album, Jei Beibi.
4. Farruko empieza el perreo
Scheduling Farruko to take the Rio Bravo Stage at the same time Café Tacuba wrapped its performance over on the Franklin Mountains Stage was a nice nod to the past and present of Latin Music from Neon Desert Music Festival.
The Latin trap and reggaeton sensation had more than enough solo hits and features to fill his hour-plus set. More than 10,000 fans turned up “para darle hasta abajo” with the Puerto Rican “Trapficante.”
5. Gucci Mane and Dillon Francis close it out
Gucci tore through classic hits like “Lemonade” and current ones like the Migos-assisted “I Get the Bag.” There wasn’t a place to move in between office buildings for two city blocks as the East Atlanta Santa proclaimed, “It’s Gucci!” and performed back-to-back trap anthems for close to an hour.
After midnight, Dillon Francis brought the rave to the streets, literally. The massive bass could be heard for blocks and the lights from the stage and glowsticks from the audience could be seen from the Franklin Mountains, just a few miles east of the festival grounds.