To the artists of Tucson, Arizona and Southern Arizona/Sonora County in general: I’m sorry. I hope that discussing your scene’s many virtues doesn’t eventually result in you all sleeping on the streets outside the condos where your ancestral punk houses once stood.
For over a decade—since I first visited my late mother in the retired biker, handmade jewelry maker, libertarian standup comedian haven of Bisbee, Arizona, and looked up Francis Harold & the Holograms on MySpace—I’ve believed that the larger Tucson area is an unsung paradise for music. If the average summer temperature of 102 degrees (a heat incommensurate with most representations of heaven) discourages the poseuric riff raff, all the better. That said, throwing an annual music festival as infectiously joyous as the one Tucson throws the first week of every September isn’t exactly an effective “Keep Out” sign. (Nor, as we will discuss, is it intended to be.)
Named after the Hotel Congress/Club Congress that housed it in 2005, HOCO Fest was partially founded to mark the 20th anniversary of the venue side of the building; partially to salvage the hotel’s consistently slow Labor Day weekend, and mostly to celebrate a vision of the area’s arts community, what the fest’s founder David Slutes calls “uncompromising and… aspirational.”
Slutes, the frontman of the semi-legendary/fully-badass “Could Have Been Bigger Than the Gin Blossoms, If Life Was Fair” Tucson band the Sidewinders, is HOCO’s founder and was (until 2015, when Matt Baquet took over) the festival’s de-facto godhead. The first lineup, handpicked by Slutes, consisted of bands that had either been the backbone of Club Congress during its first two decades, or beloved Tucson bands that the Club Congress booker convinced to reunite. (That includes Slutes’ own Sidewinders, the ‘90s no-fi skuzz bloozers of Doo Rag, Giant Sand, Naked Prey… and 36 other acts familiar to anyone who grew up in Arizona, had an overachieving collection of cowpunk albums on vinyl, and/or was a college radio DJ in the 1980s.) Slutes says he even “tricked Green On Red into getting back together” for the fest, for what would be an extremely rare (and final American) appearance by the Tucson band whose 1985 album, Gas Food Lodging, maybe/probably/why not invented the genre of alternative country. (Or co-invented, with the Mekons.)
Back then, the festival was intended to be a one-off party. But if God had intended for anniversary celebrations to be held only once, they wouldn't have invented music criticism. Two years after its inception, HOCO distinguished itself as the first “solar powered festival.” This year, the festival also hosted a table for a Tucson harm reduction advocacy group, and held a day of ecology minded panels billed as “Regenerate AZ: Sonoran Desert Sustainability Summit”. Clearly, it is a community-minded affair. With panelists ranging from the organizers of Mexico City’s DIY NRMAL Festival, to representatives from both local environmentalist cooperatives and the Pima County department for Community and Economic Development, the festival manages to be notably unembarrassing. It even managed to change my mind about the design of those goddamn Liquid Death water cans. (Aluminum cans, even when gussied up as Affliction-clad weeble wobbles, is considerably less indefensible than going through an entire green room worth of plastic bottles.)