"With a little luck and repose from the afternoon rain, the festival will be the beginning of a musical renaissance in New Mexico."
Those words were printed in these pages back in August 2007, right before the Santa Fe Muzik Fest took over the long-defunct Santa Fe Downs race track off I-25. The Wu Tang Clan and Public Enemy, among others, headlined the show, which included over 100 other acts over a three-day weekend. Needless to say, we were wrong; newspaper coverage from that time indicates the Muzik Fest was a flop.
It would be a stretch to say that the renaissance finally appeared this past weekend at Meow Wolf's Taos Vortex music festival in, uh, Taos. But the collection of acts that gathered, including The Flaming Lips, Washed Out and Thievery Corporation, represented a greater concentration of hip music in one place than Northern New Mexico has seen in a long time, which made its seemingly lower-than-expected turnout disappointing.
We'd be lying if we said we didn't have fun, though. And it felt right to dance and grow increasingly debauched near the graves of Kit Carson, the US Army Officer bitterly remembered by Navajo people, and other excessively wealthy colonizers buried at the namesake park just a few blocks up from the Taos Plaza. This nearly made up for the initial ugliness of Meow Wolf contracting with a company that had planned to set up giant fake teepees for its VIP section (the teepee structures appeared modified to look more like generic tents.)
"Festival season" has grown into a multi-million dollar industry (Coachella alone brought in $114.6 million off 250,000 attendees last year), and its trappings were visible in Taos for much of the weekend, for better or worse: A late-night, bass-heavy dance tent to cap off an evening of psychedelic headliners and West Coast chillwave; easy-to-find drugs and overpriced beer; a couple of personal drones flying overhead; and the anti-egalitarian spirit implied by cordoned-off sections (VIP versus glamping versus camping) for higher-paying patrons.
Santa Fe's ill-fated Muzik Fest 11 years ago was on Vince Kadlubek's mind the night before the Vortex; he saw the weekend as something smaller and "more manageable," and geared for an older crowd. Part of that included Meow Wolf's promotion of Taos-area recreation like llama-riding and river rafting, for which Kadlubek says Meow Wolf partnered with local vendors to make happen.
"It's not the all-day-music type thing," Kadlubek told SFR last Thursday. "We want people out in Taos, to enjoy the city and nature. We don't need people to stay up all night. … We're trying to have it be less festival culture and more a two-day showcase party."
According to Neal Copperman, the executive director of AMP Concerts, the weekend came together only about four months ago, when AMP approached Meow Wolf about putting together a double headliner with Thievery Corporation and The Flaming Lips. With a brand that lent itself to the trippy themes of the Vortex, Meow Wolf took the lead with promotion, but Copperman says both companies equally shared all associated costs for the event (Copperman wouldn't say how much money they dropped in total, just that they were "spending a lot of money to put on a really cool event.")
Kadlubek told SFR he would have been happy with 3,500 people showing up, and the number may have ticked up there on Saturday (AMP Concerts’ Santa Fe director Jamie Lenfestey says over 5,000 people showed up over the course of the weekend), but the 19-acre park made the turnout appear sparse. About half the park was reserved for campers, who pitched tents on baseball fields next to the cemetery. A field of food vendors on the other side of the park included Santa Fe-based Jambo Café and other local spots, and three tents serving alcohol were sponsored by Vivác Winery.
Tim Sanchez, an owner of the Vadito-based J&J's Lunchbox food truck that sold affordable dishes like chili dogs and Frito pie at the Vortex, said vendors might have taken a financial hit due to low turnout.
"They told us about 5,000 people would show up, and for about 5,000 people [the vendors] probably would have done okay—but it seemed a little less than what we are used to," said Sanchez, who began operating J&J's two years ago and regularly vends at Kit Carson Park. "But overall, it was a great event, and we had a lot of fun meeting a lot of cool people."
In addition to the cityfolk of New Mexico, Meow Wolf had hoped to attract people from Denver and southern Colorado, as well as the Flagstaff area in Arizona and El Paso in Texas, according to Kadlubek. Lenfestey says that 40 percent of attendees were from outside New Mexico.
Standing near the main stage after Washed Out's set on Saturday night, Denverite couple Olivia Leigh and Patrick Anderson told SFR they first visited the Meow Wolf installation in Santa Fe two years ago and were "totally blown away" by it. The two are now investors in the company's upcoming installation in Denver.
"The main reason why we decided to come here, we saw it was Meow Wolf and Taos, we've never been to Taos and we figured it'd be great," said Anderson, who wore a massive wig of spiked blonde hair resembling a Super Saiyan. On Saturday, Anderson said, they spent the day visiting local shops and breweries, but said Meow Wolf was the biggest draw for them.
"We actually have a commitment ceremony as part of our wedding in Meow Wolf [in Santa Fe]. It's just magical and amazing and brings out the best in people," added Leigh.
The weekend wasn't without its awkward moments, like when Lenfestey walked onto the main stage to hype the crowd as a clutch of Taos cops and private security surrounded a young woman who had collapsed onto the ground. And the turnout may not spark a long-delayed music festival renaissance for the state.
The Vortex did establish a framework for future fests in New Mexico, though, and it seems safe to say that if they try it again, some will come.