Ray Bennett’s Notes

The proposition to share his festival experience with this site’s visitors came from Ray Bennett, yet his friend Clint Bahr says, jokingly, “Great minds think alike”, and he was the first to send in his diary entries. Now, Ray submitted his notes, too, making the Baja Prog view more full if not all-round. All-round are the talents of the guys who are supposed to be playing yet also write so nicely…


March 30th – April 2nd, 2005

The 9th Annual International Baja Music festival in Mexicali, Mexico was, for me, a particularly special occasion… it was the re-launching gig for my 70’s band, FLASH.

The concerts ran from Wed 30th March to Sat. April 2nd 2005 – FLASH played on the 31st – and from this performers viewpoint, the festival was very enjoyable. The action was spread between the Teatro del Estada (State Theatre) in the evenings and outdoor shows every afternoon at the sizeable soundstage on the grounds of The Hotel Araiza, where all the bands stayed. The festival seemed to draw a wide variety of people: the prog fans from all over the USA – teens to older adults – a local crowd, and some from overseas. I met quite a few local families with young kids at the evening performances, which seemed surprising to me, and those I chatted with were particularly warm, friendly people. I also noticed quite a few local people really dressed up for the evening, more like opera-goers in New York, but in their uniquely Latin fashion. In the theatre bar one night, I met an older, very elegant lady, dressed in black and loaded with jewels. She spoke not a word of English, but she made it clear to me that every time she took out a cigarette, the nearest gentleman (repeatedly me), should light it for her. I was impressed.

There was a very relaxed vibe at the afternoon gatherings with all the usual festival atmosphere, CD and T-shirt sales, beer and hot dogs, much like any in the States, but with one big difference, the variety of music and the fact that the bands had come from all over the world. Although early spring, on some days the sun was really beating down, so my cowboy hat came in handy. The soundstage was near the hotel pool and that seemed to provide a central meeting place during the day for many of the bands, fans and press. The bands also socialised in the hotel restaurant at breakfast each morning (late a.m. for most of us) and in the lobby where photographers hawked their festival shots. But oddly enough the hotel bar was often quiet at night. Where did everyone go? Couldn’t possibly be to bed?

The evening shows were a different story, pretty keyed up. The theatre seats about two thousand, is well-designed, good acoustics, and the sound and lights were first rate. Many in the audience held up cell phones, and photographers and amateur video enthusiasts hopped about. I heard someone asking, ‘Is there going to be a Baja Prog DVD?’. Apparently not, I later found out from the organisers. It was way too expensive and complicated for this size venue.

It seemed to me that for both the artists, and the audiences, everything ran pretty smoothly. The theatre was a pleasure to work in, and hang out in, and all involved in running Baja prog were very friendly and efficient. Even the security guards were relaxed and friendly. I heard that Carl Palmer and some other bands had experienced conflicts with sound-check schedules, and at one point the P.A. had exploded not long before a show, but that’s par for the course backstage and all turned out OK in the end.

Colin Carter and I arrived very tired from travelling on the first day and missed the concerts that night, but after we played our show on Thursday evening it was a vacation from there on and we caught as many shows as we could between socialising, chatting with fans, autographing, and doing the occasional radio interview. The audiences were very enthusiastic from what I saw and, as it was a four-day event, everyone got to see loads of good music. A pretty good deal.

On the bill were CARAVAN, Ken Hensley, Carl Palmer, FLASH, OZRIC TENTACLES, ARTI E MESTIERI, TRIPOD, altogether around twenty bands from around the globe. I hesitate to try to review or assess any of the bands performances as I saw few of the shows from start to finish from the audience viewpoint. I was backstage a lot of the time hanging out with musician friends, meeting many fans, old and new, and all types involved in the business of music. The CD sales room which was near the lobby was an extremely congested area, and my only complaint about the festival was that. Too many vendors selling non-festival-related merchandise. The area was small and way too crowded, no one could get in or out easily, and it seemed impossible to sell anything. I know I didn’t sell much and I heard that CD sales for festival artists were poor generally.

I did catch a little of some sets and fragments of a lot of good music. Some friends of mine from New York City – TRIPOD – came across very well at Baja. Clint Bahr on twelve string bass/vocals. Steve Romano on drums (his set-up looks like the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant) and Keith Gurland on saxes, flute and effects pedals. Keith’s a great jazz improviser and on top of that he ran around the stage through much of the show blowing like a madman, jumping over monitors from one end of the sizeable stage to the other and somehow managing to avoid disappearing into the audience. I would vote him a bronze medal at least, for the sprint, and maybe a silver for the hurdle. With somersaults and back-flips he would have got the gold. TRIPOD were one of the few bands (the only?) who brought their own lighting man and it made a difference. He did a very good job.

I saw part of Carl Palmer’s set from side-stage and he was as powerful as ever, working in a guitar / bass trio. ART E MESTIERI, a band I was not familiar with, brought that Euro, progressive, Italian vibe. Interesting how prog rock culture manifests in different countries. They also had a theatrical singer who mimed mysteriously during some instrumental passages, but as the lyrics were Italian and I’m a typical Brit who only speaks Brit, the meaning was lost on me. I enjoyed VAN, a Polish band, who played before us on the 31st. Washes of electronic sound, guitar, female singer singing modal melodies, perhaps with, and without lyrics? I’m not sure, but the language problem didn’t seem to matter there.

Every band seemed to have brought something unique to the festival and the musical standard seemed consistently high. I caught fragments of the afternoon shows at the hotel, all good music and well played. Several times Colin and I intended to go and relax by the pool, to llsten a bit, and generally wander around the soundstage area, but most of my time was spent talking to fans and reporters.

Apparently the festival has grown steadily since it’s inception and now has become something of an annual cultural event in Mexicali. The City has become involved and is sponsoring it to some extent along with a local brewer – Mexicali beer – who were kind enough to send along the Mexicali beer girls to take photos with us,…what a chore. The beer was everywhere of course. Along with the many merchandisers of CDs, bootleg DVDs, T-shirts etc, the girls became a permanent fixture in the very lively front lobby of the theatre.

As a finale, the festival organisers hosted a party at a local night-club after the final show, Sat. April 2nd, for the bands, festival crew, photographers and journalists. Some of the fans staying at the hotel also showed up. They had a great Mariachi band for us, very impressive, a lot of fun, and the first time I’d ever seen that kind of music played well live. A stunningly beautiful young girl got up to sing occasionally, and there was the sing-along where everyone in the place joined in on the familiar melodies, including me (I felt like I was in a Mexican movie). Not knowing the language seemed unimportant throughout our stay in Mexicali. Perhaps rather than making life more difficult, it had the opposite effect, communication seemed easier, simpler.

At one late point in the party I looked over at the small and very crowded dance floor to see Keith from TRIPOD still very active. He was dancing with a Mexican woman in a style something like Rudolph Valentino meets John Travollta. Bravo Keith. Did Colin and I, and some forgotten others, do the “knees-up” (a British dance) for a photo op? Did I try to make a phone call to the U.K. in a British red phone box (purely decorative, there was no phone in it). Did someone explain to me the entire history of Mariachi music, though I only caught a few words through the noise and beer haze? Did I scrape the bottom of a giant empty bowl of guacamole dip trying to get the giant wooden spoon in my mouth, while my agent Leonardo Pavkovic was watching me grinning from ear to ear?

I should mention that Leonardo played quite a considerable part in Baja, booking several of the acts. He is a good friend, and was always a FLASH fan. Over the last couple of years he has been instrumental in making the FLASH reunion a reality.

Fortunately for me, the hotel was only one block away from the night-club and given the shape I was in at the end of the party I was glad I didn’t have to cross the street. I was relieved to notice that others looked in far worse shape than I was. Have you ever done a Charlie Chaplin walk when trying very hard to appear normal? It’s not cool, but who cares.

This was my frst time in Mexico, and I fell in love with it.

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