For Hotel Congress’ 100th anniversary, HOCO Fest is returning to Tucson with more than 100 performers and artists. What was once a weekend celebration at Hotel Congress is now expanding all throughout the downtown area, and at no point has it grown more than this year. In 2018, HOCO Fest hosted shows at four venues. This year, it’s 15. 

“This is the year where we’re pivoting to being a much larger community event,” said David Slutes, entertainment director at Hotel Congress. “That’s the feeling to me. That this is the year we’re seeing everything come together.” 

Aside from the indoor and outdoor stages at Hotel Congress, HOCO Fest is hosting music shows at the Rialto Theatre, 191 Toole, Che’s Lounge, the Boxyard, Cobra Arcade Bar, Exo Roast, Hotel McCoy, Wooden Tooth Records, R Bar, Thunder Canyon Brewery and more.

But even that doesn’t fully encompass the event, because HOCO is showcasing more than music. In the wild rumpus to come, HOCO will include food tastings, panel discussions, meditation workshops, art installations, “experimental afterparties” and flea markets. These events take place at Maynards Market and Kitchen, the Tucson Museum of Art, Let’s Sweat fitness gym, the YOGAnnex and The Grocery by Object Limited.

“Even though it’s surprising, it’s not unexpected to see everyone join on like this,” Slutes said. “It’s easy when you already have all these relationships in the community.” 

All of this is summarized in a single word: curation. According to Slutes, HOCO aims to show off the spirit and highlights of our desert community. Talk of a music festival growing into cultural exhibition with panels, food and art at multiple venues across the city may sound familiar, but Slutes said HOCO is not trying to replicate SXSW, although there is a certain amount of influence. 

“I’m feeling a real synergy between the city’s growth and this festival’s growth. It’s just great timing,” said HOCO Fest director Matt Baquet. “A city will lose its identity if they only focus on building without investing and cultivating the culture and music.” 

HOCO started hosting afterparties as “satellite events” in 2017. These energetic gatherings in the desert proved to the HOCO organizers that the festival could be more than a music showcase at Hotel Congress. The very next year, they sought to make these satellite events more culturally meaningful, and introduced panels to empower youth and support community activism at the Museum of Modern Art. 

“Throwing these panels made me realize we do have a loving, active culture here that is longing for things like this,” Baquet said. “It’s not just about music, but about positive impact and community growth. It really snowballed in a good way.” 

One of this year’s panels, at the Tucson Museum of Art, will discuss border politics, and features representatives from the People’s Defense Initiative and the Center for Biological Diversity. 

In addition, this year includes a Wellness section, with events like sound healing, yoga, vinyasa, meditation, tarot and herbal workshops. A portion of all HOCO Wellness proceeds will go towards the People’s Defense Initiative.

Even with this rapid expansion, Slutes is not concerned about HOCO Fest spreading itself thin or losing its local flair. 

“At the core of it is still that element of curation,” Slutes said. “We’re not building this thing just to build it. The goal is to raise Tucson up as a cultural center. Even though there’s so many venues involved, it didn’t seem like that many until we actually counted them, because we know all of them.” 

Expansion aside, HOCO maintains a large roster of diverse and burgeoning musicians, just like every other year. Musical acts this year come from Spain, Chile, Portugal, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Brazil, the Tohono O’odham Nation and Tucson itself. 

This year’s HOCO headliners range from Americana to pop to metal, but each have a unique artistic ethos:

Omar Apollo is a genre- and decade-defying R&B singer who can jump between smooth soulful vocals to frenetic pop hits all while maintaining an irresistible groove. While still near the beginning of his musical career, Apollo shows an eclectic style of singing and guitar playing that he has yet to falter on. 

Bill Callahan is somehow provincial and a heartthrob at the same time. Originally releasing lonely, lo-fi folk albums under the moniker Smog, he now releases poetic and philosophical country albums in a kind of career renaissance. These include this decade’s hits “Apocalypse” and “Dream River.”

Ms Nina gathers all the rhythms and relinquishment of Latin music to make a positive sound for the world. Fusing reggaeton, cumbia and dembow with modern pop, Nina breaks taboos and embraces aesthetics. Originally from Argentina, she is currently based out of Spain and tours all over the world.

Injury Reserve is an experimental hip-hop trio originally based out of Tempe, before hitting it big and heading to LA. They’ve mastered a wide variety of hip-hop styles, ranging from the unabashed bangers like “All this Money” to calmer and frankly touching dirges like “North Pole.” 

Gatecreeper, self described as “Arizona Caveman Music,” keep the classic sound of 80s death metal alive with punishing rhythms, technical guitar playing, and vocals gnarly enough to make you say, “You know, getting in the mosh pit sounds like a pretty good idea.”

Local performers include radical, non-conformist rap group Ojalá Systems, singer/songwriter and Tucson Salvage figure Billy Sedlmayr, riot grrrl iconoclasts Foxx Bodies, psych-tejano rockers XIXA, independent R&B singer and Black Renaissance organizer Seanloui, pastoral folk sorceress June West, alt-fuzz rockers Droll and more. 

An article on this year’s HOCO Fest wouldn’t be complete without discussing the 2019 featured visual artist Mylkweed, who also serves as a founding member of Ojalá Systems. Also known as Maxwell Lukas Mijnlieff Gay, Mylkweed’s cryptic, symbolic art will be featured throughout downtown and across HOCO Fest’s 15 venues. Mylkweed primarily works in photography and video, and focuses on “crime, surveillance, addiction, gentrification, and the detritus of consumerism.”

Even with all this listed, it only scratches the surface of the 2019’s HOCO Fest. There are art installations, meditation sessions, expert panels and food tastings aplenty to be discovered in and around the downtown area this Labor Day weekend. And every one of these is aimed at celebrating Tucson as a center of culture and creation. 

“There is no one person who leads this,” Baquet said. “It’s all of us.”

HOCO Fest takes place at multiple downtown Tucson locations, beginning Thursday, Aug. 29 through Sunday, Sept. 1. More information can be found online at hocofest.com.

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