Ex-R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck’s benefit music festival just keeps growing


When former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck launched the Todos Santos Music Festival in 2011, his goals were simple. He wanted to play informally with some musical pals and raise money to fund educational opportunities, medical care and other assistance for children and their families in the Baja California fishing town of Todos Santos.

Buck succeeded, almost in spite of himself.

“It started off completely amateur. It was really an excuse for me to play music in winter months,” said the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who lives in Todos Santos with his wife, Chloe, for several months during the year.

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He laughed. “I went from being a professional musician to being an amateur stage manager. We raised $40,000 the first year. It kind of took on a life of its own.”

The festival’s fifth edition takes place Jan. 14-16 and Jan. 20-23, with 17 bands and solo artists slated to perform. Except for 80 or so VIP tickets, which are already sold out, admission is 50 pesos (about $2) a show in the courtyard of the Hotel California, which can hold about 700 people. Admission to the biggest concert, the Jan. 23 performance in the Todos Santos town plaza, is free.

The 2016 Todos Santos Music Festival lineup includes Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, Joseph Arthur, Drive-By Truckers, La Santa Cecilia, Death Cab for Cutie and the Jayhawks. The first weekend will include the debut of Filthy Friends, which teams Buck with Corin Tucker, the singer and guitarist in the recently reunited Sleater-Kinney.

The vibe is as laid-back as the Mexican fishing town, population 6,000, that hosts the festival.

“Todos Santos is off the beaten path, and I like the small-town aspects of it,” Buck, said, speaking by phone recently from Portland.

“There’s no traffic there, and no discos or nightclubs. It’s not like Cabo San Lucas, where you party all night. Nine p.m. is our midnight in Todos Santos; everything closes at 9:15. I walk everywhere.

“You can see the ocean from the town, and watch the sun set over the water. It’s a beautiful little town. It’s also pretty funky; there’s a bull that walks in front of my house every so often. Unfortunately, they just paved the road in front of my house. As far as historic buildings go, the only one is the church, which I think was built in the 1790s. The music in that church is pretty amazing on Sundays. Listening to it from the town square, it really sounds otherworldly.”

The festival is staged in collaboration with the Palapa Society, a nonprofit education and aid organization. Its membership consists primarily of retired American schoolteachers who have settled in the area and teach there for free. The festival is a simple, freewheeling affair that celebrates music while raising funds for a worthy cause.

“I have two rules,” explained Buck, 60. “Every penny taken in from tickets, posters, merchandise and our art auction goes directly to charity. There is no middleman, so we try to pay the [production] expenses with sponsorship. The second rule is I didn’t want it to be a ‘gringo fest’ where it’s all American bands. So we have Mexican and Mexican American bands. And we have at least one show, each year on the second Saturday of the festival, that is free, so everyone can attend.

“I try to keep it safe and fun. At any festival you do, and I’ve played at hundreds of them, there’s a guy with a clipboard who says: ‘You’re supposed to go on at 7:45 p.m.,’ and you do. We leave it pretty much up to the musicians how to run it. If you want to play 20 minutes, you play 20 minutes. If you want to play two hours, play two hours.”

Asked to recall some of his favorite moments at the four previous editions of the festival, Buck cited last year’s performances by the Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia and by Tijuana’s Bostich + Fussible of the Nortec Collective.

“The Nortec guys were intense,” he said. “It was like [hearing pioneering German electronic band] Kraftwerk with a five-piece conjunto band, with tuba, trumpet and a [12-string] bajo sexto.”

Funds raised by the Todos Santos Music Festival are used, in part, to provide college scholarships to students in a town that has only a high school and a vocational school. However, after the damage caused last year by Hurricane Odile, proceeds from the 2014 edition of the festival were used primarily to help underwrite repairs for local residents.

“Money we got from ticket sales went immediately to rebuilding houses,” said Buck, for whom the festival is literally a labor of love.

“Todos Santos is not really a market anyone wants to penetrate. It’s a really small town, with mostly poor people. We’ve never come close to breaking even, but I’m hoping we will at some point.”

Come again? How has the festival raised between $40,000 and $60,000 per year if the event has yet to break even?

“I write a check at the end of each festival,” Buck replied. “So what we’re doing is an interesting social experiment.”

R.E.M. disbanded in 2011. If the band were offered millions, for the charity of its choice, to do a reunion tour and perform at major festivals, would Buck be amenable?

“I had dinner last week with [former R.E.M. members] Mike [Mills] and Michael [Stipe], and I think the feeling is that we did exactly what we set out to do — more probably,” he replied. “And we reached a point where, if we kept going, what would it mean to us?

” I think our last record [the 2011 album ‘Collapse Into Now’] is pretty good. But was it our best record? Will we ever make our best record again? Probably not. I can’t see us saying: ‘Let’s get together for four months again and go on the road again.’ I can’t see it.

“And there are tons of younger bands out there. If we reunited and played festivals, we’d just be taking space away [in the lineup] from someone just starting out.”


Todos Santos Music Festival

When: Jan. 14-16 and Jan. 20-23

Where: Hotel California and Todos Santos Town Plaza, Todos Santos, Baja California

Cost: About $2.90 for Hotel California concerts; free for the concert at Todos Santos Town Plaza