It all started in 2005, when, with Club Congress' 20th anniversary approaching, entertainment director David Slutes had an idea: Why not throw a big ol' weekend-long birthday party.
About 50 local bands—half of which reunited specifically for the event—performed over three nights that Labor Day weekend. For those who attended the festival, there seemed to be an inescapable mantra: "This is so fun that we should do it every year." And they have.
"It was based on all the bands that had played (at Congress over the years), and getting these reunions together," says Slutes. "It was hugely successful, so we decided to continue doing a festival during Labor Day weekend. And we tried to tinker with it each year, and make it grow in different ways.
"The mission kept growing and refining itself to now, when it's this thing that tries to celebrate everything ... that Tucson offers the best: great music, solar energy. ... It's like, what does Tucson have to offer the world? And why isn't the Chamber of Commerce focusing on these things instead of (spring training) baseball? Why aren't we talking about this great arts community we have, and the fact that we should be the center of solar energy? So we're just combining these things into a pretty cool festival."
This year's event is the most ambitious one yet. Yes, there is a weekend packed full of live performances by national and local acts, but take a gander at the full event schedule at hocofest.com, and just try to keep your head from spinning.
The events kick off on Thursday night (Sept. 3), when the Tucson Weekly's Tucson Area Music Awards (TAMMIES) become part of the festivities for the first time. Since both the TAMMIES (free admission) and HocoFest honor the tradition of local music, it seemed to be a perfect fit, says Slutes.
"I always thought Austin had a really nice template for it: What they do is kick off South by Southwest with the Austin Music Awards each year; everyone's in town, and it leads right into the festival. That's perfect for us as well."
On Friday and Saturday, the Potluck Audio Con, a streamlined version of the former TapeOpCon, organized by Wavelab Studio owner Craig Schumacher, will provide a series of panels and workshops for audio-recording enthusiasts of all skill levels. (Admission to the Potluck events is not included in the price of a HocoFest ticket.)
Throughout the hotel and club, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, record dealers including Zia, Bookmans, Toxic Ranch, Twist and Shout, and Stinkweeds will convene for a record fair.
On Saturday and Sunday, across Toole Avenue at Maynards, a series of free, family-oriented events will be held during the day from 2 to 8 p.m. The Family Fair on Saturday will feature such intriguingly named activities as ZooWinkles, hosted by Mrs. Tiggy Winkles and the Reid Park Zoo; and Mama-Baby-Dada Children's Interactive Performance Art.
At 6 p.m., things get a bit more grown-up-oriented, as four indie-rock bands from China—New Pants, Rebuilding The Rights of Statues, P.K. 14, and Hedgehog—will perform. On Sunday, the same space will be the site of the second annual Eco-Fest, which will include "local eco- and fair-trade-friendly vendors, artisans and entertainers."
"These are two fairs we're doing during the day to make it more of a community event," says Slutes. "Those events are free, with vendors and all kinds of things."
In addition to the satellite events scattered at other venues, there is, of course, the primary raison d'être for the festival: the music.
Taking advantage of the newly expanded Hotel Congress Plaza, Friday's events include a pair of outdoor, solar powered stages that will host HocoFest's first-ever Latin music showcase, featuring performances by Sergio Mendoza y La Orkesta, Camilo Lara of the Mexican Institute of Sound, 10-piece salsa band La Unica, Los Gallegos, Grupo Sonido, and José "Pepo" Saavedra. Meanwhile, on the indoor Club Congress stage, it's the Arizona Punk Rock Reunion, featuring three reunited Tucson punk bands of yore—Feast Upon Cactus Thorns, Bloodspasm and Cosmic Jackhammer—as well as Phoenix skate punk granddaddies J.F.A. and onetime SST band Painted Willie, from Los Angeles. (There is also the possibility of a special performance by a "surprise act.")
Saturday's musical lineup begins at 5 p.m. with an outdoor barbecue hosted by Nick Luca that will include performances from the Tim Lee 3 (ex-Windbreakers), Luca and others, which will lead into performances that night by Phoenix's Meat Puppets; X's John Doe and Exene Cervenka; Kirkwood Dellinger, which includes Elmo Kirkwood, son of the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood; and Tucson's Golden Boots. Events on the indoor club stage include the Recycled Fashion Show sponsored by Preen and Buffalo Exchange, a performance by Alana Sweetwater, and the traditional Bang! Bang! dance party.
Musical events at the hotel on Sunday begin at 5 p.m. with another barbecue, this one hosted by Al Perry. Other performers include Silos frontman Walter Salas-Humara, whose visual art will be on display the hotel lobby throughout the weekend, and Phoenix chanteuse Lonna Kelley. Later that night, Calexico will headline the outdoor main stage, which will also see a performance by Sleepercar, the latest band from Jim Ward (At the Drive-In, Sparta). The Club Congress stage will feature sets from Cracker and Australia's Matt Ellis, and once things have wrapped up in the Hotel Congress Plaza, a late-night after party featuring funnyman Neil Hamburger and super sexy R&B jams courtesy of Har Mar Superstar takes over the club.
"It's the biggest one we've ever done," says Slutes, "and it was the first year I saw the future of the event come together.
"The first year was the most special year, and nothing will ever be able to touch that—although we hope the 25th (anniversary next year) will approach that, as far as that family reunion feel, a lot of hugs and warm fuzzies. But this year is the first year that we feel like we found the real identity and mission of the event. It's all about Tucson ... a boutique festival that focuses on what we do best here."