There’s an eerie sense of calm hanging over the waiting area outside my gate in the Atlanta airport. All around me are people roughly four decades my senior; save for one couple that looks like they may be twenty-somethings as well, I am one of the only people waiting for this flight without white hair. Compared to the usual aura of dead-eyed patience or dead-eyed impatience that people give off in these sort of liminal spaces between destinations and departures, between different corners of your life, all the (I assume) retirees around me look contentedly weary. Sure, they’ve been up since 3 AM, but they know they’re on their way to pretty much the most sustained bout of relaxation you can get. All decked out in toothpaste-white, Seinfeld-esque sneakers with tube socks pulled up to knees below cargo khaki shorts, they are ready, and they are serene.
“Did you hear the newsflash from Cancún?” a Delta employee asks. He’s about the same age as these soon-to-be-passengers, and has a walrus mustache. Above us hangs a plastic sculpture of a cob of corn as an airplane, the wings and tail formed by its green husk. “They just got three feet of snow this morning. Flight’s cancelled.” He grins, everyone chuckles good-naturedly, and in hindsight I realize it is this moment where I stepped out of my sense of reality.
See, resorts are not my thing. The only reason I’m about to board this flight to Mexico is that I’m on my way to see one of my favorite bands, My Morning Jacket, play three shows at the inaugural One Big Holiday, an all-inclusive destination festival of their own creation. I mean, I get the obvious perks of such trips and why Americans would flock to them and to luxury cruises, but I’m more of a “pick a famous city and walk around for a few days” kind of guy when it comes to vacations. People do not behave in this manner when you are looking down the barrel of twenty hours worth of travel to Shanghai. I am not accustomed to such geniality when in the purgatory of airports, and because of this, I am automatically suspicious of it. Counter-intuitively on every level, those in service to those en route to vacation are seemingly experiencing just as much genuine joy as the latter. Everyone’s just so happy to be involved in ferrying us to the fantasyland at the other end of our travels.
These will be my 15th, 16th, and 17th times seeing My Morning Jacket, which aren’t necessarily rookie numbers, but are far less than those who became diehards before me. I’ve seen My Morning Jacket more times than I’ve seen any other artist, and they’re my second favorite act to see in concert. This will be my third time attending the entire run of some sort of special My Morning Jacket event. The first was in the fall of 2010, when they played five nights at New York City’s Terminal 5, performing one of their albums the entire way through each night (this was pre-Circuital), alongside all manner of b-sides and covers. The second was in the final days of 2012, when they played a three night run at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY (about a forty minute train ride out of the city) during which they did not repeat a single song between the shows. They have replicated this format elsewhere, including for these Mexico shows. When One Big Holiday was announced, I got euphoric recall from those old experiences. If those had been special, this would be something else entirely. One for the ages, and all that.
Scattered around the country, I would imagine, are others like me. Waiting for a hundred flights from different corners of America are My Morning Jacket fans, interspersed within your normal resort crowd. They might be younger. They probably look more, uh, rustic, than they do Floridian-gated-community. It is doubtful that they are calm in the same way as these Delta passengers here in Atlanta. More likely, they possess a bubbling sense of anticipation. We are headed to a rock show where “all-inclusive” translates to “unlimited free booze.” A few of them might be planning on relaxing by the pool, idly sipping a margarita, but more of them are thinking about downing a whole lot of straight tequila and partying nonstop through the four or five days they will be in Mexico to see My Morning Jacket play. Few of them, I would imagine, are concerned with the inextricable strangeness of what we are about to embark upon: the inescapable paradox of seeing an American rock band as rawly authentic as My Morning Jacket play within the synthetic confines of a resort. Which is to say, within a paradisal structure, built high and remote to keep at bay both the realities of the Mexican lives outside its walls and our American lives outsides its borders. One Big Holiday initially scanned as an unexpected, quirkily cool idea. On the ground, it reveals itself to be a mesmerizing but disorienting experience, its different facets possessing basic, core natures that are unavoidably in conflict with one another.
When you exit the airport in Cancún, you’re greeted by a swarm of employees from various resorts and tours with an assortment of signs jostling for position in the air above their heads, calling out random names to dazed white — always white — passengers temporarily blinded in the jarring transition from the numb buzz of the airport’s fluorescent lighting to the volcanic greeting of the Mexican sun. Beside them is a bar called Margaritaville, and as I find the One Big Holiday representatives they ask me if I want to stop for a beer or a margarita. I’m about halfway into saying “No, I’m alright,” when my guide takes off, slithering between a cluster of a dozen tables and torpedoing off down a row of buses. As he races away, he keeps his white foamboard sign held high, The One Big Holiday logo — the name on a red sombrero, with letters hollowed out to glimpse tropical imagery like beaches and people snorkeling — becoming a quickly receding marker in the crowd.
I’ll later meet a woman named Michelle who sums up the initial vibe of One Big Holiday well: It’s like being back in college. Aside from the binge-drinking and staying out till all hours to see some music, what she really meant is that to go to one of these destination concerts is to get that mix of anxiety and excitement that comes along with the first day of school. Everyone’s here for the same reason, but we’re all strangers at first. The bus I’m sitting on does seem to have a few large groups of friends, or perhaps just people who know each other from going to a million shows and seeing each other around, or perhaps people who are familiar with one another through the forum community on My Morning Jacket’s site. Having traveled down here solo, this means I’m that kid sitting alone in the cafeteria, knowing I’m amongst like-minded, friendly people, but not still not wanting to intrude on conversations I wasn’t a part of initially.
Moments before the bus rolls away, a man named Justin sits down next to me. He’s arrived alone as well, having flown in from San Francisco to meet his friend Brian, who’s arriving from Washington, D.C. Justin’s wife sounds like the sort of uncommon but likely-awesome person who was OK with him leaving her for a week with their six month old daughter, the only stipulation being that he also paid for Grandma to come out to California and help. Over the course of the next several days, I’ll hear a variety of explanations for why and how people are here. Justin’s and Brian’s — the guys’ week away — is a frequent one.
But Justin is a rarity in the sense that very few people I speak to seem to have left behind any responsibility aside from their job. No one else seems to have any obligations they have abandoned aside from work — no small children, often no significant other, even. After all, dropping two grand to spend a few days on a resort partying and going to concerts is the sort of thing that, on the surface, anyone would want to do, but must be hard to sell yourself on if you have more tethers than a nomadic twenty-something like myself. The people who have made it here are mainly the sort who are successful enough to have the money, but have kept themselves unattached enough that they can pursue a crazy thing like following My Morning Jacket south of the border for a few concerts. We are a bunch of adults arriving at a resort to behave like teenagers once more.
As I talk with Justin, the bus cruises down a highway towards the resort. We pass dusty Mexican towns with shuttered and gated buildings of various bright but depleted colors, and rusted-out trucks with dirt caking the tarps that flap over their splintered wooden beds, and little half-shack, half-tent concession stands on the side of the road smattered with the logo for Sol beer, all mingling with shiny new constructions still facelessly and cleanly unoccupied, or the occasional big Wal-Mart-type everything store. The towns give way to jungle, and peaking out of the foliage are little homes tucked away behind chain-link fences, mere hundreds of yards from the periodic intrusion of massive resort entrances. These gateways reinforce the “Disneyland for adults” vibe of this vacation; they announce that you are entering another world designed free of concern. One that is constructed, as an oasis amongst its surroundings, for your optimal enjoyment. Grand, impossible walls fan out into the trees like embracing arms, welcoming you off the parched highway and into the infinite, mellow pleasures within. Soon enough, our own beacon appears in the next break in the trees: a crimson guitar thrusting up into the air, lined by unlit neon. I have been traveling for twelve hours, and I have arrived at a Hard Rock Hotel.
Those of us checking in on Saturday the 25th are ahead of the game; One Big Holiday doesn’t technically begin until the following day. Nevertheless, the resort has already begun its transition over from its last temporary transformation — a similar destination concert for Furthur — and started the process of molding itself for the impending arrival of My Morning Jacket’s fans. The It Still Moves deep cut “One In The Same” echoes through the Heaven Lobby as Justin and I walk towards the check-in table. Throughout the week, My Morning Jacket songs are liberally sprinkled into the soundtrack playing across the resort, and I don’t know who curated the list but they are almost always obscurities. “One In The Same” is later joined by The Tennessee Fire’s “The Dark” and Evil Urges’ “Librarian,” which, to be fair, should remain obscure because it is a lead contender for the worst song on any of My Morning Jacket’s studio albums.
This particular location of the Hard Rock Hotel is in the early days of its existence, with certain bars and a nightclub yet to open. Reports from Furthur’s forums had scared some of the MMJ fans — we’d heard rumors of the resort being about half-finished, with accounts of rooms with things that just didn’t work, or were conspicuously absent. Like toilets where nobody had yet bothered to install a seat. Maybe they smoothed out some of the kinks within the preceding week, because there aren’t many horror stories during One Big Holiday. They are still working, though: there is some raw ground not yet turned to garden, the occasional unfinished paint job. The place is on its way to a pristine sterility, but you can see the seams as they build towards it. Which is a little creepy, to be honest, being able to see the bones that make up perfection.
After being taken in a golf cart type vehicle over to my room — which is in Building 9, way over on one end of the resort — I decide to walk back to the Heaven Lobby — which is around Building 4, past the Hacienda Lobby — to eat dinner. On that first night, with so few of us having yet arrived, the resort is quiet. Many as-yet-unoccupied rooms remain lit and with the curtains open, so you can stare into hundreds of dollhouse-like visions of placid comfort as you walk between buildings. They glow out from behind their balconies like hollowed, orange eyes in the white face of each building’s wall. Every now and then I see the shadow of another resort attendee in the distance, but the only people I seem to come face to face with in these passageways are employees, who will smile and say “Hola. How are you?” without fail. Everything is at peace before the storm of a thousand-plus day-drunk My Morning Jacket fans. The stillness is isolating.
As the official day of arrival, Sunday has no planned daytime activities, which makes it a good opportunity to explore the resort. It feels like it takes ten minutes for me to get to the Heaven Lobby, though it’s probably something like half that. Movement in general around the Hard Rock is circuitous or zig-zagging, due to the wedges of the buildings and the way the pathways meander around the lawns. The halls of each building are marked by two things. The first is an almost comical amount of “Ruta de evacuación” signs that have arrows pointing both left and right, which could make sense but could also give off a “If anything happens, just run like hell” vibe considering the maze-like walkways through the resort. Each building is also assigned an instrument. For a place called the Hard Rock, they have a curious selection: Clarín (bugle), Triángulo, Saxofón. If there’s a Guitarra building, I never find it.
Linkin Park’s “What I’ve Done” plays as I enter the Hacienda Lobby. Both lobbies are full of glass cases containing rock memorabilia, the range of which is perplexing and amusing. One of Keith Moon’s drumsets is positioned in an alcove above the stairwell in the Hacienda Lobby, whereas in Heaven it’s a set from whomever played drums for Matchbox 20, which is just, let’s say, incongruous. There is a go-kart with the distinctive red, white, and black print of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar with a label explaining it belonged to his son, Wolfgang. There are suits and jackets from the Beatles and Elton John and Johnny Cash. The stuff of the canonized gives way to lesser things, like four picture frames with clothes the Black Eyed Peas wore onstage on their 2004 Elephunk tour (Fergie’s tank top!) or onstage at the 2004 Grammys (some hideous striped jacket from will.i.am). These things are tucked away up on the second floor of Hacienda, where (I’m guessing) they figure we’d see full walls from down on the first floor of the atrium, but wouldn’t actually go up to investigate closely.
There is also a concert hall and/or club on the second floor of Hacienda, which does not seem to be in use but nevertheless has a worker inside brushing up debris. It’s next to a mural of Woodstock populated by caricatures of Joe Cocker, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. Sixties-style psychedelic concert posters of more contemporary artists line the wall, including ones that make some sense (Smashing Pumpkins), to the slightly mismatched (Fiona Apple), to the uncalled-for (Creed, with Collective Soul and something called Full Devil Jacket as openers). In the hallways immediately outside the exits, I also find two bizarre dioramas of KISS as skeletons in front of a Mexican home, and of the Beatles’ Abbey Road cover (also skeletons). For some reason, Skeleton John Lennon has red hair and bangs.
As Sunday progresses, the resort steadily fills up, and the feeling of energy rising (and the spotty wifi tanking) is increasingly palpable the more people arrive. New sounds echo through the hallways. I can hear the distant whine of someone whistling “Holdin’ On To Black Metal” with a commercial jingle lilt, and somebody else turns the opening melody of “Victory Dance” into a sort of primal yowl. Things are especially picking up in Buildings 5 and 6, both of which have walls overlooking the pavilion where all the shows will take place. The stage sits at one end, lined with a One Big Holiday banner full of birds and feathers and with the sea visible behind it. People scream out across the courtyard to each other, mostly asking about rolling papers.
In the evening, I find myself sitting in a place called Sunbar in the Hacienda Lobby. It has two large, open portals in the lobby, encouraging people to come and go as they wait for dinner reservations. Because it’s all-inclusive, there’s a certain freedom to it. People will stop in and ask for drinks and go hang out in some other part of the lobby. If you want a beer to go — always Dos Equis, both Lager and Amber, as it is throughout the resort — they give it to you in one of the medium-sized clear plastic cups your high school cafeteria used to have for fountain drinks. Every now and then someone convinces the bartenders — who are always wearing hairnets — to let them just take a whole bottle of liquor away with them, or at least to refill the bottle they’ve already attained. (On the final night, my group of new friends absconds from the pan-Asian restaurant Zen with two or three bottles of sake.) This too is one of those sights that underlines the lawlessness of One Big Holiday’s luxury: It is not uncommon to see people moving through the crowds at night, glass bottle of tequila in hand, magnanimously pouring shots for anyone who feels like it.
The décor in Sunbar is really something. A big black and white silhouette-visage of Jim Morrison peers down from above the liquor, his hair and the shadows on his face made up of vinyl records. The wallpaper behind the Lizard King is a print of various speakers, with intermittent actual speakers, boomboxes, and record players hanging on the wall. Two rows of mic stands descend upside down from the ceiling, light bulbs placed in the mouthpieces. One wall is lined with listening stations like they used to have in the music section at Barnes & Noble. Over each gateway into Sunbar hangs a quote: “Hello, I love you/ Won’t you tell me your name” and “Hello, I love you/ Let me jump in your game” which are both from, you know, the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.” Combined with the name and the Jim Morrison face, these quotes kind of make this place vaguely Waiting For The Sun-themed, which is also really something, when you think about it, choosing one of the more minor Doors releases as the theme for a new bar.
While sitting there I meet Evan and Michelle, a thirty-something married couple from San Francisco. They’re here for Evan’s birthday; Michelle isn’t a My Morning Jacket fan, but came along for the ride. Surprisingly, she isn’t the only novice. There’s also a man from Pittsburgh, who flew down here for his first shows, after years of listening to the band. While the whole “rock concert at a resort” seems like a no-brainer to some people I talk to, I’m still taken aback by those who took the leap of going along with friends, or longtime fans who flew to Mexico for their first My Morning Jacket concert. That’s sure to be a pretty great way to first experience them live, but it’s still some commitment.
Between the excitement of the first day and the all-inclusive thing, Sunday’s turning out to be a sloppier night. Despite the fact that almost any employee at the resort speaks English exceedingly well, patrons begin to goofily slip into broken Spanish. One couple woozily asks how many pesos they have in their hand, evidently confused by the numbers on the bills. Someone else yells “I’m so thirsty! ¿¡Cómo so dice ‘thirsty’!?'” Some members of the One Big Holiday stage crew walk in, and all order liquor of some variety on the rocks, before distancing themselves from the festival attendees. I sit and stare across the lobby at a glittery purple drum kit with “Aerosmith” written across the bass drumhead. New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” plays above us.
Justin eventually appears, and I meet his friend Brian for the first time, who’s decked out in glowsticks and glowstick-glasses to the point that he is repeatedly asked if he is selling Molly. “I’ve figured out that the answer people are OK with is ‘No, but I’M ON IT!'” he laughs. Justin has an impressive day’s growth of stubble, a sombrero, and a green poncho. He’s wearing fake bandoliers lined with empty, plastic shot glasses, and he has a bottle of tequila in a holster at his belt. After Justin briefly consorts with a bartender to top off his bottle of tequila — with a different kind of tequila — we realize the time has come: My Morning Jacket’s first show begins in about thirty minutes. On our way out we pass restrooms — the men’s is marked by a portrait of Justin Timberlake, the women’s by one of Katy Perry.
Seventeen shows in, the ability to define what specifically makes a My Morning Jacket concert so unique has become more elusive rather than less. As the number stack up, I find myself striving to explain the power of a My Morning Jacket show to outsiders. A lot of times this ends with: You had to be there. Or that kind of stuff.
The trope about concerts — or, at least the kind of show people will describe as “a religious experience” — revolves around their communal energy. There’s the fact that you are assembling with a few hundred to a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of people who share your interests. There’s the fact that you’re congregating to have ideas and emotions communicated to you from the performers, and that in this basic equation there is an exchange that binds everyone closer together beyond the notion that they are here to see the same artist. You can leave re-energized enough to make it through the work week. You can leave inspired to go home and pick up the guitar that has been lying in the corner for a while. You can spend hours in bars talking with friends of the moments you shared together at whichever band’s goodbye show.
When it comes to that communal element, My Morning Jacket is one of those live acts where it goes to a more extreme degree than your average band. They, much like Pearl Jam, are talked about as if they are a jam band without really being a jam band. People will follow them around the country. People will seek out coveted bootlegs of some legendary show. People keep track of setlists and what covers were performed and when and where the definitive version of a song was played.
One basic factor of the communal experience with My Morning Jacket is that you spend a lot of time with them. A two hour and fifteen minute My Morning Jacket concert would be considered on the short side. It is more common to see them tumble past the two and half hour mark and creep toward three hours. And, sure, some of that is jamming, but not as it’s understood in your typical jam band context. There’s plenty about a My Morning Jacket show that’s freewheeling — Jim James’ quirkiness, their penchant for tongue-in-cheek but still fervently delivered covers — but there’s also a careful orchestration to it that is leagues removed from the noodling one might associate with a stereotypical classicist rock band. My Morning Jacket cram a ton of songs into their shows, often carefully sequenced, their instrumental passages usually pre-orchestrated and just emphasized, heavier. Everything is calibrated for dramatic and emotive impact.
My Morning Jacket shows are amongst the very best concerts because they achieve what all concerts aspire to. Onstage, the band has the right mixture of gravity and humanity to create an atmosphere that is at once un-showy, but total. For those handful of hours you spend with My Morning Jacket, you are in a bubble that forbids the outside world from seeping into your night in any way. They create a temporary alternate reality.
Even in comparison to their superlative live show on any given night, My Morning Jacket’s multi-night experiences stand out. You begin to fall into a rhythm with them. You might still go to school or work, but for that week or couple of days, all paths lead towards the My Morning Jacket show that night. Recurring faces will begin to appear, whether within those few nights, or in relation to other shows. The Hard Rock Hotel is occupied solely by My Morning Jacket fans during One Big Holiday, so it’s that same environment but intensified a few times over. There is no work or school or normal life interspersed between each night’s show. There is just the fantasy life of the resort, and what would’ve been the recurring faces between three shows become the community in which you are spending all your time.
That sense has begun to bubble up on this first night, though it will continue to build in the coming days. While everyone’s still just getting to know each other, though, excitement crackles in the air over the pavilion as we all arrive for Sunday’s show. One Big Holiday is not entirely sold out, which means the shows are intimate and the crowd is casual. (The pavilion is big enough that it likely would’ve been comfortable even had the Hard Rock been at capacity.) Nobody is too concerned about others moving through the crowd, which there is a lot of: the concert area is bracketed by a buffet table and four bars, each equipped with the full range of liquor as well as kegs of Dos Equis and plenty of plastic cups.
The first night’s set actually turns out to be a little shorter than expected. Given the circumstances — no neighborhood noise restrictions late at night, nobody having anywhere to be tomorrow besides recovering for the next show — some fans have built up expectations that each night is going to be some three hour-plus marathon. Sunday’s show is probably a good two and a half hours, but it’s a brisk set of 21 songs, densely populated by stalwarts and heavy-hitters. At Dawn fan favorite “The Way That He Sings” is played three songs in, and epics like “Steam Engine,” “Lay Low,” and “Mahgeetah” all get aired on the first night. Each show this week winds up having some impressive run of songs in the middle. On Night 1, it’s the one-two of The Tennessee Fire classics “Heartbreakin’ Man” and “Evelyn Is Not Real” into the brooding chug of It Still Moves rarity “Masterplan,” and then “Steam Engine,” which is characteristically sweeping and beautiful. The first set vibrates with intensity, peaking with the guitar god heroics of the extended coda at the climax of “Lay Low,” one of the standouts from the band’s essential 2005 release Z.
Whether in the pacing of the set or the perhaps over-indulgence that beset many having their first encounter with the unlimited alcohol that falls under “all-inclusive,” the first night seems to stampede and then blur by. “Mahgeetah” closes the set strongly, but a little abruptly, perhaps because there are no after-events on Sunday. One moment the band’s there, another they are gone, and everyone sort of drunkenly and confusedly mills around thinking of what to do. Some girls talk about a “LCD Soundsystem-themed dance party” that I’m pretty sure is apocryphal. Days later, I’ll hear of a party in an infinity pool over by Building 1 that involved dropping acid, seeing the sunrise, and an in-pool stripper pole. (Being that I am way over in Building 9, Building 1 may as well be a mythical foreign nation at the other end of the resort, a quality that is amplified by such tales of the party scene over there. I never make it over to Building 1.) One girl, exasperated but laughing through her indignation, proclaims: “I swear I’m not a lesbian, I’m just looking for my friends!”
One Big Holiday has begun.
A My Morning Jacket crowd is always a strange, multi-faceted beast. In the fifteen years since The Tennessee Fire was released, the band’s been lumped in with alt-country, characterized as indie-rock genre-hoppers, or, whether through their classic rock leanings or reputation as a live act, been half-claimed by the jam band scene. At any example of the My Morning Jacket concerts I attend in New York, there will be an unexpected range from stylishly dressed, beautiful women who look like they’re taking a detour from being Fashion Week runway models to long-haired, tattooed men with drawls and beards that begin in Zach Galifianakis/Nick Offerman territory and end in the realm of Duck Dynasty. I imagine that in any given place, you’ll get your fair share of modern day hippies at a My Morning Jacket show. You’ll get indie-rock kids, and you’ll get jam band dudes who have been following Phish and the Grateful Dead for years and see My Morning Jacket as a totally logical inclusion in that lineage.
True to form, One Big Holiday is attended by people here for different reasons and from different backgrounds. The distance and price tag have only slightly skewed it. There are a good amount of middle-aged married couples. Somewhat shockingly, there are a handful of people who actually brought kids to this thing. My guess is that these people tend to be the ones who came down to relax and see some music. They are the sort that can be seen during the day secluded under an umbrella with a book while echoes from an all-day pool party drift over from a few buildings down. Every now and then you will see one enterprising, non-hungover individual going for a run around the resort grounds in the early morning.
Of course, nothing’s absolute. Sometimes you pass a middle-aged guy who needs to be held up by his friends at two in the afternoon. That’s the other side of things: those who have come to One Big Holiday to party. The bigger pools seem to be a perpetual bacchanalia, with all those resort touches like waiters moving amongst chairs and swim-up bars, so that you can just keep mainlining your drink of choice without concern of so much as swimming more than a few feet away. There’s a whole range of people in this category, too, but there are definitely a lot of groups of friends who came down together, often people in their late 20s and early 30s, fans with enough relative stability to treat themselves to such an event.
Depending on which portion of the fanbase you belong to, One Big Holiday is reminiscent of two contemporary trends in the music industry. The first is the tendency of classic rock or jam bands to have sort of curated mini-festivals, whether they are destination-based or traveling. These have been around for a little while, from the Allman Brothers’ Peach Music Festival to the Disco Biscuits’ Camp Bisco. More recently, Cloud 9 themselves — the same company behind One Big Holiday — also put on Furthur’s Paradise Waits festival at the Hard Rock, as well as the twelfth iteration of Jam Cruise before that, which had artists like Les Claypool, Thievery Corporation, and Galactic onboard.
In recent years, luxury — or at least privilege — has become more closely related to the indie concert-going experience than in decades past. This is of course related to the mainstreaming of indie as well as the rise of the festival industry, where you get a lot of value for your money, but in which you need to be able to swing at least a thousand dollars in concert expenses, hotel rooms, and travel if you don’t happen to live nearby. As perhaps an offshoot from this, there’s been an increase in luxury indie experiences, where erstwhile alternative artists find themselves on bills for things called Weezer Cruise and S.S. Coachella. There is now a situation in which you can hear Pulp sing “Common People” in a theatre on a cruise ship.
Somewhere along that spectrum falls One Big Holiday. Seeing My Morning Jacket at the Hard Rock Hotel might not be quite as nonsensical as a band like Cloud Nothings being booked for S.S. Coachella, but let’s just clear the air on this altogether — it’s bizarre to see any of these bands, period, in these kinds of situations. It’s not offensive, it just doesn’t compute on a very basic level. We’re not talking about KISS on a cruise ship, or Jimmy Buffet at an island resort. We’re talking about still-vital recording artists like My Morning Jacket and the Flaming Lips playing at a place that is not only engineered towards artificiality and comfort, but is also in the business of explicitly commodifying what these guys do.
I don’t mean that in the sense of like, “Here’s a concert, pay us and you can attend.” I’m talking about how the Hard Rock Hotel is off in that realm of things like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that actively canonizes and ossifies the past and then makes cheesy products out of it. When you walk around the Hard Rock Hotel lobbies, looking at the various musician knick-knacks they have creepily hung on nondescript mannequins in glass cases, you have the inescapable sense of being in a museum. Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” plays above. The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” greets you on a gust of air-conditioning. Museums are for dead things, cultures that have stopped developing to the point that we must now go about the process of preserving them, lest we lose them.
Remember Jim James is the guy who once told GQ “This might sound weird, but I don’t like my personal appearance to look crafted by human hands. So if I don’t cut my hair and I don’t cut my beard, that’s just the universe naturally growing out of me.” This is the man that, when I saw the band at Radio City Music Hall in 2008, explained his pre-show ritual as such: “I pretend my head is a cotton candy machine. I sit back there, and I meditate, and I pretend my head can open up. I just let everything out. The bad shit, that can stay out there. That’s the cotton candy. And then I just let the good shit back in, and that’s all that left.” This is the man that, during the It Still Moves night during their five night Terminal 5 album run, explained that “None of us are here right now. We’re all just back home at our monitors tuned into this big concert simulation right now. So thanks for plugging in with us tonight!” This doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would love the idea of a destination festival at a resort dedicated to the sterilization of the music he loves so dearly. That’s not a criticism, but more so an attempt to describe the inherent out-of-joint feeling that comes with attending One Big Holiday.
So My Morning Jacket plays guitars and they cover the Beatles and the Band, but they aren’t the sort of nostalgia or retro act you’d expect to encounter at the Hard Rock Hotel. Far from it. My experiences at My Morning Jacket concerts have been amongst the most visceral and immediate in my life. Yet, at the core of One Big Holiday is a tension between competing versions of Americanness. My Morning Jacket is a paragon of a certain type of contemporary Americana: classic-sounding enough as to reference back to the roots music that inspired them, but just strange and ghostly enough to shoot it through with the shadows of the present. They have the sound and ineffable power of mystics from out in the frontier, every coating of reverb like some harnessed bit of dense Southern swamp air. They would be the contemporary embodiment of a very classic sense of American authenticity, if there were such a thing. They are one in a handful of current rock and indie bands steeped in the traditions of American music but in tune enough with the world around them as to convincingly capture the sensations of rolling through not a sepia-toned 1970s highway, but the post-industrial American landscape.
And here we are at the Hard Rock Hotel, which is a plastic reflection of all that being shot back. My Morning Jacket has a still-living mythos — the old tale of recording vocals in grain silos, and all that. Things like Hard Rock Hotel turn that sort of mythos into a pop language. Here’s a go-kart with Eddie Van Halen’s guitar print, and you’re just supposed to be able to tacitly understand and consume culture by looking at all these inactive objects around you. Where an artist like My Morning Jacket is a believable, functioning example of American art, our surroundings in Mexico turn that into a lingua franca of classic but petrified signifiers, whether in the collection of old, established hits playing above our heads or in the memorabilia lining the walls. And you can experience it within the height of comfort and relaxation — two very rock ‘n’ roll concepts, naturally — in nice new beds and pools and with anything you desire at your fingertips. It’s packaged culture.
That is what rolls through my head as I sit down for dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Frida in the Hacienda Lobby on Monday evening. Much like our hotel rooms and the lobbies, there are some hints of Mexican décor, with little resort elements slipping through. Dark brown wooden beams stream across a ceiling of orange bricks. Paintings full of Catholic imagery hang on the deep yellow walls. I have a realization, somewhere in this, that I have no firm grasp on what is stereotypical, cartoonized, or authentic when it comes to Mexican décor and food. I am so expectant that, as an American, ninety percent of the foreign culture we have at home has slowly been mixed with or mollified for our culture, or become straight Disney-fied. The weird thing, the confusing and displacing thing, is that a lot of things in Mexico are actually as I expect, visually and taste-wise. Is there any way that there are restaurants that actually look like this in those dusty towns we passed through in between resorts? Occasionally you have to remind yourself that this is an American-branded hotel, and then you just don’t know what to think one way or the other again. So when I feel like it I get up from my table without having to pay anyone, and I walk over to the concert pavilion.
After coming out swinging the first night, My Morning Jacket slows it down a bit through Night 2. This irks some of the friends I made last night, but I’d argue that Monday is the superior of the two so far. This second show is stocked with the kind of slow-burning My Morning Jacket songs that meticulously weave their way towards intense releases. “Honest Man” stalks along until its Crazy Horse-esque guitar freakouts and the live version of “War Begun” — a somewhat under-realized track on The Tennessee Fire — becomes its own multi-part saga. Maybe it’s because I first saw the band several times during the times of Z and Evil Urges, but for the last two years or so I’ve gotten most excited about seeing these early songs in concert. The current iteration of My Morning Jacket — the one that’s been in place since the recording of Z — takes what were gorgeous but lo-fi songs on The Tennessee Fire and breathes an immense amount of new power into them. The version of “The Dark” on the record sounds basically like a demo, but when they open with it tonight it convincingly transitions from a spacey intro into swaggering Southern rock in a far more effective fashion than its studio counterpart. The same could be said for “Old September Blues” and “Picture Of You,” both of which had James sounding spectral in the encore.
A few people to my side, there’s a man who looks like a slightly older, grayer Ben Mendelsohn. He wears his Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to his sternum and rocks back and forth on his heels, his head lolling forward and back as if the heat and booze are hitting him at the same time. He, too, seems appreciative of the older cuts, as he’s very invested in the “Phone Went West” outro.
The encores of My Morning Jacket shows can sometimes be when everything happens. They never come out and do just two or three songs; the encore is in many ways just a second set, when the band and crowd alike are thoroughly warmed up. During these One Big Holiday shows, the encores are where the band stretches out, layering covers against their own heavy hitters. This means their towering rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nothing” segues right into the zaniness of “Holdin’ On To Black Metal.” Bob Weir joins them for the second time, this time on “Dear Prudence,” and the whole night ends with “Gideon” and the extended coda that sometimes accompanies it. As the last ringing notes reverberate off the stage, James picks up the golden teddy bear prop they often have atop one of their amps. He holds it aloft like an idol, and then he’s out of there.
Monday’s set is followed by a DJ set by Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza. The dance parties are all held in a multi-tiered patio area outside the back entrance to the Heaven Lobby. The DJ booth is set up at the top, the Hard Rock logo looming up on top of the building above it. There’s a decent showing at the Garza set, but some of the attendees look a little confused. A small group crowds around the DJ booth, but many others linger on the lower tiers, staring up at them. It’s a stranger sight to see My Morning Jacket fans dancing to house music than it was to see them dancing to tonight’s opener, the New Orleans-bred Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Many people are dancing by themselves, inwardly. Old Ben Mendelsohn reappears out of a gap in the crowd up by Garza. His shirt is fully unbuttoned, his stomach protruding as he leans back and sways in place, his mouth agape and eyes looking to the sky above. He clearly no longer has any idea of where he is.
Another facet of the destination festival package is that there are planned excursions off-resort that you can opt into for a small additional fee. Things like scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, shopping, and visiting ruins. On Tuesday, Justin, Brian, and myself all find ourselves on the trip to Tulum, an area of Mayan ruins overlooking the beach. What you see when you first pull up to Tulum, though, is a handful of buildings full of restaurants and little shops selling various souvenirs and knick-knacks. The first, and largest, of these, is a sort of general store meets souvenir shop. Inside, you can buy single bottles of Mexican beer for $1.50. There’s a stack of straw hats, fedoras, and sombreros. Some have the blue Corona logo emblazoned on the band.
Tulum was a Mayan port city, built on cliffs overlooking the sea. Our tour guide, who after several name changes has asked us to call him the Cisco Kid, takes us through a tunnel most of us have to bend half over to get through. When you first exit that tunnel you’re standing on one of the furthest edges of the ruins, the cliffs and the Caribbean seemingly impossible shades of grey and green and blue. The sun today feels prepared to sear the flesh from your face. The Cisco Kid, leads us in a circuitous route around the ruins, explaining bits of Mayan history. Most of it is interesting, but after a while Cisco Kid’s words seem to get caught in the humidity before they reach you. Some of us begin to wander alone, moving amongst crumbling stone buildings thousands of years older than our country, taking photos to Instagram when we’re back on the wifi-equipped resort. When I return to the group Cisco Kid is in the midst of teaching everyone some kind of Mayan chant where they all touch the ground, raise their hands, and yell. Then he gathers everyone together for a photo shoot. Each time he takes a picture of the group he yells “Sex has no calories!”
When the tour concludes we have about three hours until it’s time to leave for the resort. Most of our group descend down a dark wooden stairwell from the cliff to the beach. I wander down a narrow stone pathway through the trees, walking in a direction I assume is back towards Tulum’s shops and restaurants. Eventually I stumble out of a break in the trees and see a trolly waiting to take us back. The front car is actually a bulldozer outfitted with a big blue wooden casing made to look like a lead train car. The two back cars are built on flatbeds; one is vomit green and the other is hot pink. The whole thing looks like a blown up version of a child’s toy.
The train pulls up in a very specific row of shops. Employees stand outside coaxing us in. One guy offers up a series of buzzwords he knows Americans will recognize: “Quesadillas! Burritos! Nachos! Beer!” I walk in and sit down, dazed from the heat. And because I’m on the verge of death from dehydration and I’m an American, I order a Coca-Cola.
The restaurant is a little room open to the outside as well as a hallway behind it that seems to link the various restaurants and stores. White metal fans hang above, mocking me with their stillness. The room is lit by two strips of a fluorescent light, sans cover. They have two tall coolers with clear doors, one full of sodas and the other a selection of Mexican beers atop something like thirty coconuts. Periodically one of the servers gets one of these, takes them around the corner, and hacks them apart with a machete, sometimes handing them to a customer with a straw so that they can drink the coconut water as is, sometimes mixing drink concoctions with liberal amounts of tequila.
The bottle of Coke I receive appears to be a leftover bit of Christmas propaganda. A picture of Santa holding a old-fashioned glass bottle of Coke sits alongside the normal logo with a quote: “Yo también creo en ti.” Which means: “I also believe in you.” I have a meal that strikes me as some true, authentic Mexican food, but what do I know. The experience of Tulum feels like as much of a projection to outsiders, as much a tailored and distilled vision of culture meant for consumption and nothing more, as the Hard Rock.
The excursion is a weird middle ground between One Big Holiday and the outside world. It’s a temporary removal from the constructed, walled-in specificity of our experience at the Hard Rock, but what we trade it in for is the kind of constructed experience that’s deliberately calibrated to convince foreigners that they’re having a more authentic experience than on the resort grounds. This spot is the kind of tourist destination where everyone calls out to you as you pass. Do you want a photo with these guys dressed as ancient Mayan warriors? Do you want fine Cuban cigars? How about this traditional Mexican skeleton mask thing? All the stores blur together, little openings in the same pink walls, probably all selling stuff made in those buildings labeled “Jewelry Factory” that line the highway. Somehow, there is a Subway here, with little kittens wandering around the tables outside. Across from Subway is some place called Rasta Pizza, with a cartoon logo of a black, dreadlocked man. There are stands with Haagen-Dasz umbrellas. Shops offer colorful traditional ponchos, but also wool ones emblazoned with names and icons of American football teams. “They know their audience,” Justin jokes, a rolled up Denver Broncos poncho under his arm.
The Flaming Lips are a canny choice for the artist to round out the One Big Holiday lineup. They are also famous for their live shows, though the fact that their reputation is rooted more in their elaborate stage setups and quirky practices (Wayne Coyne going out into the crowd in a plastic bubble; getting fans to come up and dance onstage in ridiculous costumes) adds a counterpoint to the way My Morning Jacket treats a concert. At least, that’s what I’d expected. The Flaming Lips’ set is definitely a counterpoint to My Morning Jacket, but the stage setup that has evolved out of their 2013 release The Terror is a stranger, more haunting one than what they’d favored before.
The centerpiece of their shows is a sort of cyberpunk-meets-psychedelic structure, an altar of clear cords that Coyne spends the majority of the set standing upon. These same cords hang behind the band in front of a screen, and lights course through them according to the song. Coyne wears an all-black leather outfit, cradling a baby doll for the first few several songs, before producing a trumpet. He begins waving it around, and it emits one long belch of smoke from its mouth when they launch into “The W.A.N.D.” three songs in. As the stage throbs to life in a dizzying collection of flashing lights, a man two people in front of me leans over, throws up, and goes back to dancing. To his left, there is a woman wearing a hat with a unicorn horn protruding from it, gloves of tie-dyed fur, and little flickering light-up attachments on her fingernails.
Rather than hew entirely to the challengingly dark psychedelia of The Terror, the Flaming Lips sprinkle in the hits — “She Don’t Use Jelly” is a welcome good time, but it is outlandish to hear it coming from this stage — and a few covers. They do David Bowie’s “Heroes” accompanied by a full attack of multi-colored lights akin to a test pattern come to life. “Any day you get to wake up at 7 PM in an expensive hotel room and just start going out for the night is a good fucking night,” Coyne says at one point. He isn’t wrong, but the quote makes little sense in the context of what we’re seeing unfold.
Tuesday night is also when My Morning Jacket are hosting a dance party, over in that same multi-tiered area behind the Heaven Lobby. Around an hour after the Flaming Lips, we’ve all arrived over here, a much bigger turnout than there had been for Garza the previous night. A group of friends to my left take turns dipping their pinkies into a Ziploc bag, scooping up little bits of crushed up Molly and licking it off their hands. A man with a handlebar mustache rolls a joint openly on a bar table. There are a couple of guys wearing the bathrobes from their rooms, Mexican wrestling masks, and/or sombreros. A white girl is twerking on a tree. Wayne Coyne passes by me at one point, bouncing up and down with each step. He has traded his Matrix outfit for white man-tights and a tight t-shirt. All covered in glitter, he smiles at anyone who notices him, but is intently leading a voluptuous blonde out of the crowd.
Supposedly the different band members switch off DJ’ing, but every time I make my way up to the DJ booth it’s drummer Patrick Hallahan, swaying from behind his curtain of brown curly hair. Much of the set focuses around ’90s hip hop classics, with an eventual detour into ’70s rock music. Hallahan plays Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark” four songs from the end, which might just be the best thing ever to hear at a dance party at 4 AM, so I make my way up to stand closer to the speakers. It’s impossible to discern any actual notes up here — it’s just a massive wall of distortion and warped sounds. There is no way any of the people dancing right by the booth can actually here what is being played. For the whole night, it must have been a uniform sheet of noise and fuzzy drumbeats. They keep dancing though, unconcerned.
There’s a feeling that sets in, probably somewhere around Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, that the outside world has ceased to exist entirely. There’s a basic practical reason for this: with spotty wifi, it’s unpredictable when you can get a text out to someone in America, and it’s likely that you’ll miss their response anyway. Multiple people say they put their phones in their room safe when they arrived and hadn’t opened it since. The result is that you have this intense, short-lived community that thrives off of the twin draws of our mutual love of the band and the perks of resort life. Even as each time you meet someone you explain where you are from and what you do back home, just a few days into this that seems to have receded into the ether. Your friends are the people you’re here with all day. What you do is just this — sit down at a table and eat as much as you want, get up without exchanging any money, go see a show every night. Blame it on the heat or the lack of contact or the fantasy lures of the Hard Rock Hotel’s environment, but this begins to feel, in an abstract sense, like what your life simply is. You happen to live in a community that revolves around seeing this band play almost every night. A normal run of My Morning Jacket shows can have this effect, to an extent. This, though. It’s different. This is never supposed to end.
I pass through Hacienda Lobby on my way to lunch. This one has a fondness for Gorillaz. In addition to “Clint Eastwood” and “Dirty Harry,” this is the third time I’ve heard “DARE.” After exiting and walking through the pool area, I arrive at Ipanema, which is one of two buffet restaurants that open for lunch. The food here is mostly Mexican, with an old woman behind the counter rapidly making tortillas by hand. When I sit down, a waitress brings me a Coke that is so cold I can watch vapor leak off the glass throughout my lunch. As I eat, I stare out bay windows overlooking the Caribbean and the Guess Who’s “American Woman” plays overhead.
Each following morning, it’s always as if the previous night didn’t happen. The concert pavilion is devoid of littered beer cups or any other marks of the crowd that occupied it in the early morning. The same appears true of the patios where last night’s dance party occurred. A raw, weathered live recording of Pearl Jam’s “Go” echoes over from the pool. The space I’m looking at, though, is anesthetized. One Big Holiday is a constant play between some of the most authentic and earnest experiences you’ll have, and then stumbling on those places the next day to rub your eyes, wondering where the mark of human activity disappeared to so quickly, so invisibly and efficiently.
Some fans idly wait around the pool for this afternoon’s activity to begin. Compared to the bizarre accounts I’d received of other daily activities — the lip-syncing contest, something called “My Morning Straight Jacket” which was apparently an eating contest involving straitjackets — the Rock And Roll Trivia Bingo is a pretty tame experience. There’s some MC running the thing, playing songs for you to identify, mark on your bingo card, and if you get the right combination of bingo and whatever else he’s asking for, you get a prize. Periodically he asks questions like “Who did the Band originally support before Bob Dylan?” and someone will jump out of the pool to run and give him the answer and get a little bottle of tequila as a reward. “Drink responsibly, or irresponsibly, or whatever you do,” he tells the woman who gets the full-size bottle. “Rodney Dangerfield got no respect and this song…has nothing to do with that,” he says before playing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” “I have bingo!” one guy yells. “Do you?” the host asks. “I don’t know!” the man yells back. He didn’t have bingo.
In a situation like this, it’s almost inevitable that the third night becomes the best in your memory, regardless of whether or not it is. It feels more special — those you were just meeting during the first show now feel like close friends. The whole group of attendees, in general, now feels like a self-contained community. And the band seems to feed off of that, tumbling forward on momentum and barreling headlong through the final night. In the instance of One Big Holiday, there isn’t any doubt in my mind: Not only is Night 3 the strongest show in Mexico, it is in the top three My Morning Jacket shows I’ve yet seen.
I begin to feel it when they open with “Victory Dance” which is as seductive and foreboding and catastrophic as always. It continues when they dig up “Lowdown” two songs later. The moment I know I’m truly in something, though, is during perhaps the best run I’ve ever seen My Morning Jacket put together. The sing-along refrain of “O Is The One That Is Real” drowning out James’ vocals, into the lachrymose slide guitar chorus and unspooling distortion of “Strangulation!”, into the apocalyptic strobes of the ending of “Run Thru,” into an expectedly super-sized version of “Dondante.” A cover of the Band’s “Don’t Do It” and a euphoric rendition of “Anytime” close the main set.
A few songs into the encore, quirky My Morning Jacket rears its head. They play “Careless Whisper,” as they’ve been known to do, and James performs a little skit in the middle of it:
JIM JAMES: So, I was talking to George [Michael] on the phone and last night and he was like:
BRITISH JIM JAMES: Jim, I love when you guys do “Careless Whisper.” It’s so beau-ti-ful. Jim, this is George.
JIM JAMES: Yeah, I know George.
BRITISH JIM JAMES: Jim, do you know tomorrow is a special day? Someone in your band is celebrating.
JIM JAMES: Nah, man, I don’t give a fuck about my friends. Just kidding — it’s Carl’s birthday!
[Roadie crosses stage with birthday cake. Carl leans over his guitar to blow out candles.]
BRITISH JIM JAMES: Jim, do you know that when we recorded the song, it was misunderstood. They missed the ending. We wanted people to eat their bananas, because they are full of potassium.
I’ve seen My Morning Jacket do this once before, so I know what is coming, but most around me are shocked when, as James transforms the refrain of “Careless Whisper” into “Ba-ba, ba-naaa-na-na-naaas,” a crate full of bananas is rolled out, and the band proceeds to throw them into the crowd. I mean, after a few days of day-drinking in the Mexican sun, they’re probably right about people needing some bananas. A lot of people get hit in the head, though.
Each time the show seems over it persists. “Highly Suspicious” into “Dancefloors” into their amazing version of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” with its near-percussive horn breaks. Wayne Coyne comes onstage holding a One Big Holiday poster with words scrawled on the back. “Jim, I’m here by request by the band,” he explains. “Because they realized you don’t know the lyrics to this song.” And then they played an endearingly all over the place cover of the Clash’s “Rock The Casbah.” (To which nobody actually knows the lyrics.)
They leave the stage after this, and for a moment they have us fooled. It seems obvious that they would save “One Big Holiday” for the final night, and they wouldn’t seriously end the festival without playing it, right? Moments later James runs back onstage, Flying V in hand, and begins that indelible riff. “One Big Holiday” is one of those songs that, somehow, continues to gain power the more times you hear it live. I can count on one hand the other songs I have seen grown, graying men react so strongly to. In this context, the song takes on new power as the final, namesake rite in christening My Morning Jacket’s new destination festival. Full cups of beer cascade thirty feet above us, sustaining a steady rain of alcohol for about thirty seconds. The crowd singing along — even in these small numbers — is a roar worthy of the song’s slashing chords and solos. And the rest, well. You had to be there, I guess.
There’s a deadness in the air the next day as I take my final walk across the Hard Rock Hotel grounds. I’m reminded of that serenity I witnessed amongst those Delta passengers in Atlanta, but there’s a slightly different quality here now. It’s more a feeling like something has happened here but has already been washed away — it’s a calmness not of peace, but of erasure and cleansing. Some people are staying a few extra days to recover, and they have yet to wake up. The rest of us are drawn over to the convention center to board the buses that will take us to the airport, back to our real lives. I see few people walking past. In the distance, that MC from the pool is still going at it, but there is no commotion, no partiers screaming their responses. His voice drifts out unanswered in the stillness. I swear I hear him say: “It’s all rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all real.” Some sort of spa Muzak now plays alongside the placid cerulean water of the Hacienda Pool and the One Big Holiday festival banner has already been stripped from the stage. Our alternate reality has now been closed to us.
Where before there had been the frenzy and the messiness of the My Morning Jacket crowd jostling within the pristine walls of the Hard Rock, now there is only an absence. A blankness of detail, almost. The resort properties look near-abandoned but still running. Waterfalls continue their unobtrusive small-time thunder in one pool, but without human bodies clamoring around underneath them. No drunken festival-goers crash down the slide. Two resort employees stand as silent sentinels behind the poolside speakers, unreadable smiles breaking the inaction of their faces. Maybe they are smiling because they prefer Muzak to the umpteenth classic rock song. Maybe they appreciate the quiet. The smiles are different than the ones that’d accompany every “Hola” in these past several days. They wear the sort of starched, pearly white clothes that radiate whiteness off of them in the sunlight. A very pure look, so maybe they’re smiling because One Big Holiday is over and these two are still standing and they have the total absence of human marks upon their clothes to prove it. I can’t shake the sense that they’re smiling because they’re happy to see me go.
There are no golf carts whirring around the grounds, ferrying travelers and their suitcases. After a sweltering walk across the resort, I board an also-sweltering bus and take a seat alone, as I did on the original bus ride here. Distant memories from Saturday flit through my mind: of people excitedly climbing into the bus, a margarita or can of Corona in hand, of their cheers when an enthusiastic bus company employee chanted “One. Big. Holiday!”, of the anticipatory buzz that came with meeting new people equally as excited as yourself for several nights of My Morning Jacket. These unifying qualities break down slowly and silently as the bus slowly rolls back through those dusty towns this time. People compare the travel ahead of them; the man who winds up sitting next to me has a minuscule trip back to Florida, where I am somehow taking twelve hours to get back to the Northeast. Couples idly deliberate about what movies they’ll watch on their iPads on the way home. A few murmur about how they never want to smell tequila again, before pulling straw souvenir hats down over their patchily sunburnt faces. In half an hour the particulars of our experience have fallen away. We’re just strangers who went to a resort.
With all of these multi-night My Morning jacket experience, there’s the dreaded aftermath. When the glow dissipates, and the next evening rolls around and you realize that, for the first time in three or five nights, you’re not going to go see My Morning Jacket once more. You’re not going to see all your friends. You’re just going to sit at home, like any other time, and the temporary immersion is undone so quickly that it all starts to feel sort of dream-like and distant, like you can almost reach out and feel it, but only ever in some distant way. You search for words to explain it to outsiders, even the diehard Jacket fans you know who weren’t there this time around. But you come up short.
Before all that, though. Before the comedown totally hits me, just as the beautiful candy-colored haze of my time in Mexico starts to recede as I begin the trip back to the harsh gray skies of Pennsylvania, I wander aimlessly through the Cancún airport. There’s a sprawling duty-free shop across from another Margaritaville location. There’s a row of fast food restaurants: Haagen-Dasz and Domino’s and Johnny Rockets. The employees at the convenience store will offer to sell you a card to give you access to the airport’s wifi, and then when you say yes they’ll say “Really? The wifi sometimes doesn’t work.” And you might ask, “Is it working today?” And they’ll say “No. It never works.”
I wander aimlessly between these places because I don’t have a gate assignment, and I do not know where I’m supposed to go. Periodically I’ll glimpse someone off in the distance that I recognize from One Big Holiday. A familiar face amongst tanned retirees resting their eyes before their flights or amongst screaming children. We are always conspicuous. The bearded and tattooed amongst the more typical resort crowds, signals like a cardboard tube housing a special edition concert poster tucked under our arms. The people I identify as My Morning Jacket fans seem adrift, too, unknowing how to navigate this other world we’ve now found ourselves in. We are now satellites cut loose.
After One Big Holiday, this post-experience feeling of loss will be ever more severe. While for every dozen people I genuinely tell “Let’s keep in touch when we’re back in America,” maybe it will only be true of three to six of them. But it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say people have made real, potentially long-lasting friendships here in the span of a few days. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say we’ve seen My Morning Jacket at the top of their game, that we’ve witnessed three special shows that stand out even amongst the depth of their live material. This all happened at the Hard Rock Hotel, which was inarguably fun. Sometimes a question lingers, though: Should it have happened here? Does that make sense, or does it even need to?
Maybe all you need to walk away with is the knowledge that One Big Holiday was at once the most authentic and mediated and artificially comfortable and visceral that you’ve ever known your life to be, all at the same time. You had an experience. Your soul might have been rearranged, just a little bit, for just a little while.