What started out in 2005 as a way to celebrate Tucson's musical past has evolved through twists and turns into an event centered on innovative, genre-spanning artists that points a way to the city's future.
The 2018 HOCO Fest, a five-day bash downtown, expands on the formula introduced last year, with a new spin on the annual Hotel Congress-curated "boutique festival" that offers something for everyone: cutting-edge dance artists, the 10th annual HOCO Latin night, underground hip-hop, a robust comedy schedule, '80s college-rock legends, DIY punk, a record fair and, for those still going, even some after parties.
"We had 30 band reunions for the 20th birthday," says David Slutes, Hotel Congress entertainment and booking director. "It was insane and hugely successful, so much so that we just kept this thing going. By the 25th anniversary, we have to break it into two separate festivals, it was HOCO reunion and HOCO traveling bands."
Three years ago, the festival celebrated the 30th year of Club Congress, again with an Arizona-centric lineup. But then it was time to evolve, and club music booker Matt Baquet took on the role of HOCO Fest director.
"It felt like the door was closing on that that era of HOCO. It was a culmination and what do you do with it at that point. I felt like it's always been fun, but it was time for a change. Club Congress has always reinvented itself while holding to its roots, and it's a perfect time for reinvention," Slutes says. "We decided to revisit the idea and Matt stepped in to blow it up and start fresh. It's gone from celebrating Tucson's music to celebrating what Tucson can become."
Baquet began striving to reach more national acts. Several years ago, HOCO nearly had Blood Orange and Solange booked, but backed off, only to see both artists blow up nationally. Last year's edition brought fresh acts like Thundercat, Frankie Cosmos, Yves Tumor and many more.
This year, many of the national and international acts are at a similar phase in their careers, Baquet says, starting to gain more attention, but still slightly below the radar. So it's a chance to see artists on small stages before they become major stars.
"Tucson has no idea. These artists are going to be huge and people will remember seeing them in the club," he says. "Last year was really figuring out the format for what we're doing now. We did some totally left-field stuff and also had XIXA and Orkesta Mendoza. This year, there are 10 different events that cater to 10 different tastes and they all celebrate what Hotel Congress is all about. Everyone has a show they can enjoy."
HOCO is a fest booked with a purpose, Baquet says. He casts an inclusive net, looking for exciting, innovative and self-driven artists, and crafts each night and venue carefully.
"Most fests lack that personal touch. Here, it's the main point. The HOCO Festival is unlike any other experience," Baquet says. "We go against the grain and book things differently. It's not just going for some token headline artists. Each person on each show has been carefully curated."
Musically, there's little in common among artists like Dean Blunt, Topaz Jones, Bad Gyal, Riobamba and Destruction Unit. But, Baquet says, "they don't budge on their visions and they don't let people put parameters on their sound."
"This is for people who are craving something new," Baquet says. "We want people to come with an open mind. I'm all about trying to make really eclectic shows that make sense together."
The ultimate goal is for the artists to get to see Tucson, while the festival crowd gets to see what's going on in the world musically, Baquet says.
"We're stepping out of Congress to include other venues. It's Tucson. We're trying to bring the whole community up with the festival and show the outside world that this city should be paid attention to," Baquet says. "We're not just throwing a music festival. Ultimately, it's a celebration of all things Southern Arizona and a great way to bring in people from outside to see it. We're growing this festival and it's not going anywhere. This is just the beginning of this new format."