Staged in Toluca, nearly an hour outside Mexico City, the Ceremonia festival takes over the grounds of an enormous go-cart track, which not only provides a fairly panoramic mountaintop view but goes a long way toward making you feel like you are exactly in the middle of nowhere. This is the only festival I’ve ever attended where it was possible to order a Nutella-filled crepe and a seafood tostada garnished with roasted grasshoppers. Also, Toluca’s extreme elevation and thinner air means that traveling music journalists such as myself can find themselves relatively drunk after just two beers, which probably explains why so much of the festival now feels like weird dream.
As lineups go, this year’s Ceremonia was a nicely mixed bag — a healthy split between well-known international acts (Julian Casablancas, Flying Lotus, !!!), and a variety of Latin American artists. On the big stage, Suuns offered up some gloriously drone-heavy psych early in the afternoon, made all the more surreal by the number of drones hovering over the audience like giant mosquitos (usually employed to delicately drop bags of chips or pairs of sunglasses into the crowd). It wasn’t until Ty Segall took the stage later in the day — offering up a raucous set that dipped heavily into his new Manipulator material — that the fairly serene crowd finally erupted, stomping the already soggy ground into a giant mudpit. Playing one of the most perfect sets of the day, Flying Lotus took the stage just after sundown, appearing almost like a holographic silhouette as he performed between two transparent scrims. Elsewhere, Theophilus London played a surprisingly funky full-band set just before !!! did their best to convert the smaller Ceremonia tent into their own basement dance party. Tyler, The Creator (who led the main stage crowd in an extended Mex-i-co! Mex-i-co! chant upon taking the stage) and A$AP Ferg (who had to contend with a seismic downpour of rain) seemed to be what most of the kids came for, and neither of them disappointed. Tyler in particular has learned how to command a festival-sized stage to full, riotous effect, which made the ramshackle nature of Julian Casablancas + The Voidz feel like kind of a soggy closing act.
In the end, some of the best things I saw at Ceremonia were bands I’d never heard of: Hawaiian Gremlins (sort of like Wild Nothing but with three guys shout-singing in Spanish), Clubz (a duo from Monterrey who played one of the best sets of the day, shimmery electro pop piled high with Cure-like guitar lines), and Teen Flirt (a DJ and producer from Mexico whose house-friendly early afternoon set made dancing in mud boots seem sort of easy).
The weirdest surprise of the day came after ducking into a UFO-themed tent to see Vegan Cannibal, the musical nom de plume of Mexican musician Carlos Olvera. Employing a variety of cheap keyboards and rudimentary samplers, Olvera spent the next hour basically melting my brain with a set that I drunkenly noted in my phone sounded like “Early-’90s Josh Wink meets Atari Teenage Riot meets Aphex Twin meets Pharmakon.” Having now soberly sought out some of his work, I stand by that description. After a day spent wandering around to take in a lot of totally fine but sort of rote performances by the likes of How To Dress Well and Unknown Mortal Orchestra on the main stages, the abject weirdness of Vegan Cannibal’s set was a messy blast of fresh air. Sitting on an overstuffed plastic couch inside a tent designed to look like a Roswellian UFO bunker while sharing sips of mezcal from a flask offered to me by some very stoned teenagers, I finally felt like all the long flights and borderline altitude sickness were worth it. Out on the big stage were bands I could have easily seen back home, but here in the tent — next to a bunch of kids totally going off to their friend’s bizarro dance/noise set — I was reminded why I love my job so much, and how festivals don’t have to be a cattle-herding exercise in corporate branding. At their best, festivals like Ceremonia give you a chance to hear music you might never otherwise check out, and bond with strangers you’d never otherwise hang out with. Ultimately, this was what I came to Mexico for. Thankfully, it was well worth the trip.