BajaWonderGrass 2023: Music & Magic in Baja California Sur, Mexico
BajaWonderGrass 2023: Music & Magic in Baja California Sur, Mexico
The inaugural BajaWonderGrass took place in El Sargento at La Tuna BCS, and featured Pickin’ on the Dead, Buffalo Commons, Bonfire Dub, Mimi Naja, Kyle Tuttle, Lindsay Lou, Daniel Rodriguez, and many combinations of the artists from these bands.
The first-year festival was created and hosted by WinterWonderGrass, and marked their first international event.
We had Colleen Murphy (of Denver band Bottlerocket Hurricane) cover the festival for us, as we were too busy drinking mescalitas to record an accurate account.
I sat in our airport shuttle, stuck behind a burning car, cracked a beer, and pondered the morning as I made my way to the first-ever Baja Wondergrass music festival in El Sargento, Mexico.
My alarm hadn’t gone off and I’d raced to get to the airport for the much-needed beach vacation and festival, born from sibling festivals WinterWonderGrass, and River Wondergrass.
I had missed my early morning plane and as I raced to the gate saw them shut the door, literally in my face. I was flabbergasted and almost in tears, but fortunately had lined up a shuttle ride from the BajaWonderGrass site. I knew there was another flight leaving in just 2 hours, so I still had a chance to save my vacation and my sanity.
I raced over to the Southwest counter and was able to secure a flight for $50 less than my original ticket, which I got fully refunded for my next adventure, and sat down to take a breather.
About an hour or so later I saw Adrian “ Ace” Engfer, and Michael Kirkpatrick (fresh out of the hospital, and looking well) saunter up and knew It was all going to be ok. I inquired about Michael’s health, and then saw Tyler Grant arrive, completing the core trio of Pickin’ on the Dead.
The flight went off without a hitch. I sat down and looked around me and saw more artists and friends than I had ever flown with at one time.
Festival community at its finest.
Let the adventure commence.
On the 2-hour shuttle ride from the airport to our destination we encountered an accident on the road, a flame engulfed car.
True, it may have stopped traffic, but also provided us a 90-minute delay – time to get to know our shuttle buddies, have a refreshment and form a makeshift band. An impromptu roadside concert commenced, complete with federales, flames, and a performance of House of the Rising Sun, earning us tips & rousing cries of “Viva Mexico!” from onlookers.
Seemed like a solid start.
I got to chatting with our hosts, Carol and Willie Ornelas. What were the odds I’d pick a random VRBO owned by the former Sonny and Cher drummer, who also had a recognizable hit from my childhood with Billy Vera and the Beaters on the TV series Family Ties? They wanted to know all about our “little music festival,” as they have been doing their own blues fest on the property for many years. Having a number-one hit in the 80s was a very different thing than the music world today I’d imagine, and it had funded the couple’s lifestyle here for many years.
The next morning, we did some amazing snorkeling and kayaking. We learned that the venue was about a mile and a half walk up the coast, easily accessible by foot. We spent a day playing in the sand and sea, then around 5 began our trek up the beach to hear the first music of the Baja Wondergrass festival.
Mimi Naja of Fruition skillfully began the night, but we only caught a few notes of the last song as the road to the venue became non-existent at about halfway, making it a great workout, but a little more of a walk than we bargained for. We decided the money would be well spent investing in ATV rentals next year.
FGN caught the entire Mimi Naja opening set, and it was wonderful. Check out our YouTube BajaWondergGrass playlist for some videos.
There were 2 stages. A small intimate beach stage had a simple BOSE Tower and plank landing, which provided more than ample sound. Then there was an upper-level area (accessed via a calf-burning ramp) with a main stage set up that we called “The County Fair,” with a full PA.
Both stages had vast views of the sky meeting the tranquil Gulf of California. The downstairs space included restaurant service from La Tuna BCS, delicious offerings of ceviche, tacos, cocktails, and more, brought to you right on the beach, or at upper table balcony seating, all with great views of the music.
The upper stage earned its “County Fair” nickname due to long ticket lines to acquire food & drink from vendors, in amounts that did not correlate easily to items offered for purchase. Other things we heard from the crowd were hopes that more non-alcoholic choices would be offered and that a ticket>purchase exchange would be clearer and would use exact change or maintain the same price each night.
FGN Note: The WinterWonderGrass team are pros, and instantly recognized the inefficiency of the first night’s drink ticket system. By night 2, there were multiple beer tables that accepted cash, along with the ticketed system. However, we definitely questioned the process of exchanging our fake-looking pieces of paper with random numbers on them for different, more fake-looking pieces of paper with random numbers on them, that we dubbed “Baja Bucks.” Still, it made for some fun times and jokes, and we know WonderGrass will improve upon this net year.
The highlight of the first night musically for myself and many in my party was Buffalo Commons. Their mainstage performance kicked off the night with high-energy magic, playing favorites off their album Patterns. We were thrilled as we danced to CannonBall Jones, My Way Home, Animals, and a skillfully executed cover of Flake which washed over the crowd flowing with the Baja vibes like a gentle wave.
Another I was really pleased by was the trio set of Tyler Grant, Ace Engfer, and Michael Kirkpatrick performing their own music. A special moment was the song Why Don’t You Turn Out the Light, written by Adrian “Ace” Engfer, invoking imagery rivaling the poetic musings of the Hunter/Garcia classic Standing on the Moon, but through a fresh new lens, very skillfully written & performed.
It was my first time seeing Scotty Stoughton’s (our Wondergrass champion) band Bonfire Dub. Their reggae-inspired vibes fit the beach mood perfectly as we swayed and grooved to the beat while the warm breezes blew off the water.
One of my favorite things about the festival was the intermingling of performers sneaking in and out of each other’s sets. If you happened to miss one performance there was no need to worry as they might appear at any given moment throughout the festival.
By night 2, all were primed and ready to go.
After grilling shrimp & picking tunes with our new friends and neighbors, we arrived at the festival. Music was in full swing and artists were up and down stages all night playing and mingling with the crowd, now fully immersed in the warming glow of staggeringly beautiful pink and coral sunsets.
Mimi, Kyle and Lindsay Lou were having too much fun, as seemed to be the order stated by the neon glowing “Good Vibes Only” sign over the stage.
Daniel Rodriguez had his first set playing beautiful offerings off of his new collection of songs called Sojourn of a Burning Sun including a beautiful rendition of Growing Pains that warmed my heart.
Pickin’ on the Dead had 2 main stage sets nights 2 & 3 with a core band of Tyler Grant, Ace Engfer, Michael Kirkpatrick, Mark Levy & Jake Wolf.
They started out their first set with an appropriate Let the Good Times Roll, Brown-Eyed Women, & Me and My Uncle. Other highlights included Music Never Stopped, Estimated>Eyes. Unfortunately, the music did have to stop as the band had rolled past the sound curfew, but not before special guests Jeff Armistead, Scotty Stoughton, (Bonfire Dub) Randy Kelley, Tyler Cain,(Buffalo Commons) Lindsay Lou and Kyle Tuttle had all joined in.
There was one more Buffalo Commons sunset set, ending with Tyree Woods‘ poignant Monday, reminding all of the refuge of peace we all sought here on the coast.
There were still some surprises in store as we watched the memorial lantern lights float up over the ocean, to honor our loved ones who passed away and set our intentions for the future.
Daniel Rodriguez then brought a tear to my eye with his song Good Graces and made the crowd howl with the Elephant Revival favorite, Sing To the Mountain with almost more special guests than the beach stage could support.
In the last Bonfire & Buffalos set, Scotty was so pumped that he did a spread eagle jump with his guitar on stage, seeing his coastal dreams come to fruition.
As I listened to Kyle, Mimi, and Linday Lou twist a mesmerizing Dooleys Farm into a vocally haunting Woodstock, I knew to savor every last drop of this festival that I had gone to more or less on a whim. I was grateful I had trusted my inner voice.
Closing out night 3 was Bonfire Dub feat. Kyle Tuttle, with some Widespread covers thrown in for good measure, and a closing dual set of Pickin’ on the Dead, including a rare Tom Thumb’s Blues. The show was stolen in part with JGB classic Motown covers and a surprise guest visit by Madeline Hawthorne Kelley popping in to do an uplifting How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You), Mimi Naja coming in hot later with Second that Emotion and Lindsay Lou absolutely crushing Gomorrah.
Danjo Harris (Buffalo Commons) was on banjo for the entire first set, Kyle Tuttle the entire second set, not to mention, Randy Kelley, Jeff Armistead, Rodney Coquia, Scotty Stoughton, Tyler Cain, Jeff Swager and even Daniel Rodriguez sneaking in briefly on percussion!
All I can say is WOW.
I wish there had been a commemorative inaugural poster, to remind us to add BajaWonderGrass to the “things to do next year” list.
(FGN – somehow, I think we’ll remember!)
Overall, BajaWonderGrass Festival was a blessed, well-thought-out, sun-soaked adventure that I was super pumped to be a part of.
Thank you, Scotty and the whole BajaWonderGrass Team who worked diligently to make this a reality. Thank you to all the local people of El Sargento for letting us swarm your town for a week and to the fans for behaving themselves and being respectful of other cultures in the interest of goodwill and music.
I hope this grows into a thriving festival that lives for years to come.
Viva Baja Wondergrass!
~Colleen Murphy, Bottlerocket Hurricane
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