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Mayan Holidaze (feat. Disco Biscuits, Umphrey’s McGee, STS9)

by Benjy Eisen on January 28, 2011

Mayan Holidaze
Mayan Riviera, Mexico
January 20-24

The Mayan Riviera is a tourist corridor on the Yucatan Peninsula that stretches along the Caribbean coastline in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, from some point just south of Cancun (as in “Spring Break!!” ) down to the once-walled fortress of Tulum. While the corridor itself has been a popular vacation spot for decades, it didn’t get its name until a marketing campaign in 1999 branded it with the alluring title. I didn’t know any of this, really, until I looked it up while sitting in Terminal 3 at the San Francisco International Airport, around 7:30AM, last Thursday. Twelve hours later (well, ten if you adjust for time zones), I would arrive in Cancun and hop on a shuttle headed to the Mayan Riviera’s northern gateway, Puerto Morelos.

I was a tourist alright, but for a different kind of tour — this was the location of the first Mayan Holidaze, a music festival produced by Cloud 9 that featured multiple sets by the Disco Biscuits, Umphrey’s McGee and STS9 along with support by the Album Leaf, 30db, Orchard Lounge, Bonobo and Emancipator. It’s a boutique festival, for sure — an intense experience for an intense crowd that listens to intense music. All in the most relaxed setting imaginable, of course. Like the Yin and the Yang, the one balances the other.

With just 496 rooms at the resort, Mayan Holidaze was completely sold out from the start; and, yet, undeniably intimate in every way. It didn’t matter that nobody carried their cell phones with them — finding your friends was as easy as finding the Weather Channel on a hotel room television set. A couple flips and you’re there. Besides, just about everyone on site was already your friend. Or about to be your friend. Or a friend of your friends. Don’t roll your eyes: this is solid fact (albeit with few, but real, exceptions).

The boys on the shuttle from the airport were a prime example of the reason why Holidaze works — these were kids I’d probably never talk to randomly at a bar, unless, by chance, we were all there to watch a football game and happened to be rooting for the same team. At Holidaze, we weren’t only rooting for the same team — we were actually on it. First string. Starting lineup. All stars. Game of champions. Not two minutes down the road from the airport, these boys had cracked open beers and were reviewing their playbook, looking for the right move that would get them checked in and settled without missing the first notes of Umphrey’s.

I missed the first notes of Umphrey’s. After being escorted to my room by golf cart (a service extended to all Now Sapphire guests), I changed from my city clothes into vacay-wear. That included changing the stare in my eyes from the pinpoints of a neurotic traveler — weary from a full day of flying clear across one country and into the next — to retinas modeled after glazed donuts, still warm from the oven. In other words, as soon as I checked in, I checked out. Gone were thoughts of that miss back in California that doesn’t know what she wants. Gone were concerns about whether or not I felt comfortable with where I had arrived in my career. Gone was the constant anxiousness about what my next move should be should I decide to move on to the next and leave the city that I’ve called home for the past three years. Gone were personal matters, big and small. One glance in the bathroom mirror of Room 816 and all that was gone.

Outside the room, things had suddenly gone missing too — like every preconceived notion about the ingredients of a great music festival and what to expect from a perfect vacation. Just like Jam Cruise and Caribbean Holidaze — Mayan Holidaze’s direct predecessor — Could 9 Adventures has created an unparalleled experience that seems to transcend anything else like it. The reason for this is simple: there actually is nothing else like it. All this after being on site for all of 10 minutes. I knew what my next move would be, of course. I went down to the beach to check out Umphrey’s who, it turns out, were in fine form. That part wasn’t surprising. Music is supposed to be a celebration and it is served best in the midst of one.

“It’s like we were flying coach and we just upgraded to first class,” Bayliss told the crowd, regarding Now Sapphire versus the resorts from Caribbean Holidaze. The thing is, he could’ve just as well been talking about Umphrey’s. After all, for an event like this where you and literally everyone else just traveled a few thousand miles just to enjoy the moment, making sure you brought your A Game with you was even more important than packing your swimsuits and sunscreen — those things could be bought in the gift shop. But being on top of your game, well, that was an individual responsibility that was encouraged by every single other person there, challenged by 1,000 other personal bests, all on display like a couple of blue-footed boobies at the apex of their mating ritual. And in the end, everyone brought it. Including, first and foremost, the bands.

Umphrey’s guitarist Jake Cinninger later admitted to me that he felt their first show on the beach was a little rusty. “We haven’t seen or played with each other since the New Year’s show, and there was kind of a lot of time between then,” he said on Sunday afternoon looking back on Thursday evening. “It was kind of like getting the training wheels back off the band.”

It’s good that he was honest, but honestly few fans would’ve agreed with him entirely. Sure, the band reeled in the improvisation (something they would compensate for the following night, such as when they plunged through “Plunger” and threw a ‘Superstitious" jam in “Booth Love” ) but a second set sandwich of “The Bottom Half → Glory → The Bottom Half” was just as tasty as anything at the nearby late-night buffet and, certainly, their much-adored cover of the Talking Heads’ “Making Flippy Floppy” had people kicking off their own flip-flops to go make splishy-splashy in the ocean just yards from the front of the stage. Everyone kinda knew right then and there how the rest of the four days were going to go and, no matter what words they would’ve used to describe it, “training wheels” were definitely not part of the otherwise all-inclusive package. This party was strictly for varsity players.

Bonobo took over for an hour before Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) played a late-night show that would go until just before 3AM, followed (yes, followed) by a late-late night Orchard Lounge set inside the resort’s lounge/banquet room — a set-up that looked like the kind of place where people get married, luau’ed, lectured and/or congratulated.

By Friday people were beginning to get their bearings. They learned the lay of the land and while some took off to explore Tulum — and, yet, others the underwater cave systems known as cenotes — I explored my more immediate surroundings… and the bars that adorned them. And the beach just beyond. That evening, I went with some friends to the resort’s Japanese restaurant, Lemongrass, for a hibachi dinner. Because eating Japanese food in Mexico is kinda like watching a band from Philadelphia play their heart out in the Yucatan — it adds perspective. Or something. Disco Biscuits’ guitarist Jon Gutwillig ate with us at our table as we were treated to a resort-class teppanyaki show from one of the chefs. He seemed relaxed enough but something must’ve happened between desert and his soundcheck minutes later because by the time he took the stage with the Disco Biscuits, he was shredding like there was no tomorrow. It actually made you wish there was no tomorrow… or, rather, impatient for it to arrive so you could do it all over again. And then we got to do it all over again.

But, that night, Gutwillig never took his eye off the prize, building sonic pyramids worthy of their own Mayan creation myths as the band shredded through songs both old ( “Crickets” ) and new ( “Neck Romancer” ), launching jams into territory that was at once strange and comforting, as if to match the immediate surroundings, before bringing Umphrey’s bassist Ryan Stasik onstage for an electronically-saturated “On Time” encore. Count that as a win.

Later that night, Umphrey’s McGee celebrated their 13th birthday — their Bar Mitzvah, as they posited it - with two tight sets filled with loose-lipped improvisation and other appropriate pageantry. Perhaps, most notably, the band debuted a Spanish-language version of their greatest hit, “In the Kitchen” - a move that was both bold and finely executed, not to mention entertaining. As were their cover choices for the evening - Steely Dan’s “Peg” and Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun” - the latter being a misnomer because, in fact, Umphrey’s late-nighter was some of the most fun of the entire weekend.

And then we got to do it all over again. By the time most people — at least, most of the people I knew — woke up on Saturday, half the day had already been sacrificed to the Mayan gods. Which was fine: one of the many precious things about Mayan Holidaze is that the days and nights really are divided. Not only is there no overlapping music — which, of course, is huge — but the daylight hours really are laid back affairs while nights are given to excess, in the darkness of the Yucatan wilderness.

STS9 bassist David Murphy spun a DJ set from the pool’s floating gazebo around 2PM while Umphrey’s Brendan Bayliss and Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin teamed up for their acoustic side-project known as 30db. That set turned out to be another certified Holidaze highlight. It was a casual set for a casual afternoon, with most fans pulling up beach chairs and chaise lounges, while others stood along the waterline and yet others sat on their own private balconies and watched the easy breezy proceedings — as they are in real life, Bayliss and Austin were comedic and informal. Austin even joked to the few hundred in attendance that “this is exactly the same amount of people that bought the 30db record… Welcome to our album release party!” In addition to relaxed renditions of their album tracks, 30db treated the audience to undressed, oceanside versions of Wilco’s “Handshake Drugs” and Modest Mouse’s “The Good Times Are Killing Me.” Inside the walls of the resort — specifically, by the main lobby and banquet lounge — Fiesta Night got underway without much warning. A mariachi band provided the soundtrack for a tequila tasting which, either by requisite or by default, got everyone into jovial spirits, so to speak, for the resort-produced fiesta: a Mexican buffet was rolled out in the lounge while traditional dancers and other Mexican heritage entertainers took to the banquet stage. It was comical in its own way and endearing in another — certainly a nice touch. It also served as a reminder, lest anyone start to think that they were at a music festival, that Holidaze is, in fact, a music vacation. There is a difference and it was demonstrated, at this particular moment, by men in sombreros.

By the time Murphy asked the crowd, during STS9’s Saturday evening show, “Isn’t this the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?” it was already well established that, yes, in fact, it was. Waiters continuously brought trays full of drinks — from beers to margaritas — into the crowd for anyone’s and everyone’s enjoyment while STS9 played an inspired show that somehow felt rooted in actual geography.

Speaking to him about it later, Murphy allowed that part of the reason it felt so special was, indeed, that Mayan Holidaze tapped directly into STS9’s well-known connection to Mayan culture — and, yet, this was the first time the group had a chance to play their Mayan-inspired music right in the actual heart of Mayan territory. Then, too, these shows would serve as STS9’s last shows for the immediate future, due to an unfortunate health issue — something never really addressed head on, out of respect and, also, perhaps, because all realities just seemed out of place down there.

All that stuff, including the Mayan connection, became an afterthought when measured against the same excitement that all the other bands — and all the fans — had in common: “Just being on the beach, watching the moon come up, and seeing the smiles — seeing how people react to it down here — everyone is so calm and relaxed and yet having the time of their life,” Murphy said, whilst smiling himself. “Mayan Holidaze was really special for Sector 9.”

The late-night Disco Biscuits show was, not surprisingly, the dance party of the weekend, with Bisco kids literally kicking up sand for three hours straight while the band threw everything topical in their arsenal - including “The Very Moon,” “Above the Waves” and “Caves of the East” - out on the table for the gods to judge. They approved. Sorry if you don’t.

Much like Saturday, daylight hours on Sunday were strictly casual, with some fans partaking in water sports and still others venturing off on excursions. Others chose to get some exercise by playing tennis with members of both Umphrey’s McGee and STS9. But while everyone brought their Sunday Best — in spirit if not in dress — out for the grand finale of Holidaze, the afternoon’s defining activity was clearly football. Hundreds spread out around a giant screen in the banquet hall to watch the NFC and AFC championship games. It was, decidedly, the only time during all four days in which not everyone was on the same team, despite all being in it together.

Band members and fans hooted, hollered, heckled and hoorayed their way through the games, bonding over both the wins and losses. It was, once again, an otherwise common experience that, in the context of a Cloud 9 Adventure, somehow became unforgettable. Later that night, upon reflecting on his total Holidaze adventure, Ryan Stasik even told me point blank that “watching the Steelers go to the Super Bowl was probably the best thing to happen to me personally down here, to be honest.” And that includes salsa dancing with his future wife and getting bar mitzvahed with his band —experiences which, he confessed, were also great.

“We actually were not Umphrey’s McGee 13 years ago on this date,” he corrected, for the record. “We actually were Fat Tony. That was our first gig. We were Fat Tony. And then on January 29th we were Umphrey’s McGee.”

On Sunday night they changed their name yet again, albeit temporarily. Instead of performing a typical Umphrey’s McGee set, they performed an all-request show under the name Eliga La Musica. In fact, all three anchor bands changed their names on Sunday, reflecting respective twists that had been successfully engineered to make the last night of this fantastic adventure all the more fantastic and adventurous.

Under the name Axe the Cables, STS9 performed a semi-acoustic (or, perhaps more accurately, “sparsely electronic” ) set that was a throwback, stylistically, to an earlier time in their career. The setlist included gems from throughout their repertoire, ranging from “Equinox” (from 2002’s “Sessions 01” ) to “The New Soma” (from 2008’s “Peaceblaster” ) to “Moon Socket” (from 1999‘s “Interplanetary Escape Vehicle” ). All told, the set — STS9’s last scheduled show for the time being — was both heartfelt and heartwarming.

Back on Friday night, Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein told the crowd that they would “take it to the end of this party” and that’s exactly what they did, as the Biscuits took to the stage under the moniker Tractor Beam for all-instrumental versions of popular Biscuits songs — including the otherwise singalong staples “Mindless Dribble” and “Svenghali,” as well as Conspirator tracks like “Lunar Pursuit” and a couple deep cuts including the fan-pleasing “Aquatic Ape.”

Of course, even paradise has its flaws and the one major limitation of Mayan Holidaze didn’t show its butt-ugly face until the very end, but it was certainly a serious damper — that is, come the dawn, it dawned on everybody that this journey had to come to a close. It just couldn’t go on forever. Well, actually, it can — it just needs 361 days of rest in between editions. That’s cool. I can wait. But, along with every other person in attendance, I just can’t and don’t want to live in a world where I can’t start counting down the days to the next Holidaze. It took me all of 2,801 words to say what I could’ve said in seven: Mayan Holidaze is, quite simply, the best.

Authors: Benjy Eisen