Hal Davidson, a promoter with a varied past, is taking a big bet that the inaugural Rock Fiesta festival will attract a younger, Spanish-speaking crowd to an Arizona desert town normally frequented by the happily blue-haired.
Davidson is bringing nearly twenty of Mexico’s most beloved rock bands to Quartzsite, a town he calls "a playground for octogenarians," for a two-day festival that will, he sincerely hopes, plug a hole in the festival market and draw significant crowds of fans from both sides of the border.
"The festival will run from 11a.m. to 12:30 in the morning, with no stops," says Davidson, who tells Billboard the independently-funded Fiesta will cost $2 million to produce. "It will be rock, in your face, for 13-and-a-half hours on two separate days. This will never happen again."
Rock Fiesta's lineup features legendary rock en español bands and Latin alternative artists including Cafe Tacvba, Caifanes, Maldita Vecindad, El Tri, Molotov and Monterrey-based Kinky. Its home will be Desert Gardens, a 118-acre camping site in Quartzsite around 100 miles from the Mexican border and a three- to four-hour drive from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tijuana and Mexicali, and two hours from Phoenix.
Davidson, 61, a self-described "a six-foot-tall Jewish man living in the Washington, D.C. area," started planning the festival three years ago, after being introduced to rock en español by Kinky, becoming friendly with the group after promoting one of their shows at the Miami concert venue La Covacha. That show, he notes, did not do well. But over lunch, one of the band members took out his phone and showed him a photo of the group performing at Mexico City’s massive Vive Latino festival. "I said 'that looks like 80,000 people and you on stage," Davidson recounts. "And they said, ‘that’s 80,000 people and us on stage."
That was enough for Davidson to envision the potential for a major Latin rock festival in the United States. Upon Kinky’s suggestion, Davidson looked for a location along the U.S.-Mexico border, spending $30,000 in travel costs over two years to scout potential sites, passing over McAllen and Austin, Tx., Albuquerque, N.M. and Las Vegas, Nv. as potential sites.
It was around then that Davidson received a call over opportunities to bring entertainment to Quartzsite -- a country music festival was suggested. Instead, he proposed Rock Fiesta.
"If you’re a passionate promoter who sees a hole in the market, it doesn't matter whether you’re Latino or not," says Davidson, who started his lengthy career as the twenty-year-old organizer of the Stompin 76 bluegrass festival in ear Galax, Va., which he remembers as a wild time -- "something like Vietnam." After that festival, a financial fiasco, Davidson worked as a Ringling Bros. circus promoter, and later began logging miles as an international music festival consultant.
"As a professional producer you can work with any kind of music as long as you’ve got the money and the town or municipality is willing," says Davidson, who has now set up a base in Quartzsite and contracted a Rock Fiesta production team, among whom he is the only one "who is not Latino or speaks Spanish."
Davidson sees the Rock Fiesta as a win-win situation for Spanish-language rock fans and Quartzsite. He says the town, which has a resident population of about 3,600 and attracts thousands of the aforementioned elderly visitors in the wintertime, will benefit from reaching new demographics that Rock Fiesta will bring. Among other financial arrangements with city leaders and influencers, a portion of the proceeds from bar sales at the festival will be donated to the local Rotary Club. The producer says he is not worried about the culture clash that will occur on the festival weekend, adding that there will be "big time security" at the event.
"We don't care about their ID," he notes, referring to the Latino immigrants and Mexican nationals expected to be drawn to a show in a state known for controversial anti-immigrant policies. "You only need ID at the festival to drink a beer."
Festivals focusing on Latin rock and alternative music have been increasing in number over the past few years; Chicago’s Ruido Fest and L.A.’s Supersonico have catered to a similar crowd. Another recent festival, the two-day L Festival in Costa Mesa, Ca., was billed by its producers, Universal Music and Goldenvoice, as a "Latin Coachella," it featured a line-up of both pop stars and regional Mexican artists.
Davidson asserts that his desert festival will be a more "authentic" option than L Festival, and that the scope of the Rock Fiesta camping and music experience will go beyond any other gathering. "We need a cultural event like this for the people who are supporting Latino Rock," he says. Davidson says he is working with local Arizona Latin rock producers, but is promoting the show independently. He is producing the festival with his own funds and money brought in by a private partner from Palm Springs.
Asked how he was able to book such a high-level of bands as a newcomer to the Latin music scene, he responded with one word: "Cash."
"We’re rolling the dice in a big way," he admits. "I’ll be an expert in this on the morning of March 20, when Rock Fiesta is over."