A couple days before SXSW, I traveled to Monterrey, Mexico for Festival NRMAL, a one-day, 55-band party. Taking a barely-planned trip just ahead of Austin’s endless sea of wristbands and Jacked Doritos seemed like maybe not the best idea, but instead of thinking about that I ran a neti pot through my nose, threw a water-repellent jacket into a backpack and went to the airport.
Four million people live in Monterrey, a hub of industry that has become a battleground of Mexico's drug war. Everyone drives. A river, dry most of the time, runs parallel to the city's major highway, bisecting the city in half, hamburger style. In 2010, Brooklyn show promoter Todd P held his own festival in Monterrey, MtyMx. If fondly remembered, the endeavor was in part a failure. Following an unexpected uptick in cartel violence, bands canceled. Busses from Texas to Mexico had trouble at the border and it was too cold to camp. Instead of going it alone, P collaborated with NRMAL this year, curating one of the festival's three stages.
Held in San Pedro Garza Garcia, a suburb on Monterrey's southwestern edge and Mexico's wealthiest enclave, NRMAL sailed impeccably smooth. Bands from Mexico, the US and South America were flown in and put up across the street from the venue, a sprawling lot surrounded by mountains. Vans shuttled everyone from the lobby to house parties and back. Unfurling across 12 hours and three stages, the festival was casual and democratic. 4,500 fans came and most stayed through the day. The draw was no headliner in particular but the vibe; a mix of locals and travelers, laid-back security, cheap double tequila spritzers, served in yin-yang emblazoned jumbo cups. An airline lost Grimes’ gear and so she danced her way through a haphazard, karaoked set. The mess was unilaterally adored. Afterward—because why not—Grimes took 2C-B.
Musicians gave each other stick and poke tattoos on hotel beds and ate papaya for breakfast. Goodbye drinks at the end of the weekend felt like a cande-lit, end of summer camp ceremony. NRMAL operates year round, from a one-table collaborative office in San Pedro. (The organization shares the space with sister design team Savvy Studio, who redesign the festival's identity in their unique style—think Kid Pix but flattened and refined.) Still, this weekend is their crown jewel. Something to look forward to and push toward all year, it's a way of showing the world that in Monterrey, culture is important and alive. NRMAL has been hosting events for five years, since 2007. Now, they are thriving.
Eventually, I flew back to New York and slept in my empty apartment for a couple hours. I unpacked and re-packed my suitcase, took the subway to work and then a cab back to LaGuardia and got on a plane to Texas. Once there, I saw focused performances and met writers I've admired from afar. That felt nice, but not as nice as seeing Diego Adrian, the endlessly charismatic leader of Chilean duo Adrianigual, lock himself against the stage while watching Girls, who've never toured through Santiago, Adrian's hometown. He hugged his friends. They took a million pictures, a puddle of wide grins and squeals. What's better than that?