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All-American Bacchanalia: Six Days In Mexico For My Morning Jacket’s One Big Holiday

STEREOGUM - February 20, 2014

Day 1

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.

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.

To continue reading Stereogum’s One Big Holiday 2014 Recap, click HERE.