Peter Buck's Paradise: Inside R.E.M. Guitarist's Cozy Mexican Fest

John Paul Jones, Corin Tucker, Jeff Tweedy and more join Buck at latest Todos Santos Music Festival

"I've played a million festivals," says R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. "I want this to represent more of who I am." Credit: Vivian Johnson

"That PA was in my closet at 3:30," Peter Buck says, pointing at a pair of speakers in the open-air courtyard at La Morena, a bar on the main street of Todos Santos, a small town at the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico. "The one they brought in had cobwebs," the former R.E.M. guitarist goes on, swirling a glass of wine in one hand as dusk falls overhead. "I don't think it had been used in 20 years."

It is 5 p.m. on January 20th, the kickoff hour for the second weekend of the best little rock festival in the world: Todos Santos Music Festival, now in its fifth year in this sun-kissed Pacific Coast cluster of small hotels, restaurants and craft shops. Buck, 59, staged the first edition in January 2012, only a few months after he and his sidekicks in R.E.M., bassist Mike Mills and singer Michael Stipe, announced their retirement as a band in 2011. Buck and his wife, Chloe Johnson, are the chief organizers. The guitarist didn't go far to retrieve that PA; he and Johnson have a house a block's walk from La Morena.

As for the music at this happy-hour acoustic session: "It's gonna be whoever wants to get up and do whatever," Buck says casually, brushing back the long, silver hair that keeps falling over his mirrored sunglasses. That is exactly what happens for the next two hours as musicians who will play across the weekend — including Mills, guitarist Scott McCaughey, singer-songwriters Steve Wynn and Chuck Prophet, members of the Jayhawks and, in an unexpected appearance, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones — step up to the small forest of mics to swap songs and instruments, in shifting, improvised combinations.

The Todos Santos Music Festival is basically a feast of friends, drawn from Buck's deep pool of close pals, studio collaborators and touring buddies, some going back to R.E.M.'s early-Eighties birth in Athens, Georgia. This year, the January 14th–16th weekend featured Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy — Buck produced an album for Tweedy's old band, Uncle Tupelo — and Filthy Friends, Buck's new band with Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney. The January 20th–23rd run is also packed with associations. Drive-By Truckers were founded in Athens; the Jayhawks are about to release a new album, co-produced by Buck; and Jones arranged the strings on R.E.M.'s 1992 album, Automatic for the People. Death Cab for Cutie, playing their first concerts in Mexico, stage a mini-R.E.M. reunion one night, performing that band's "Fall on Me" with Buck on ravishing 12-string jangle and Mills singing at his side.

The musicians play three main shows across both weekend — for free, with all proceeds going to the Palapa Society of Todos Santos, a charity specializing in education initiatives for the community. There are two marathon evenings under the stars at the Hotel California, also on the main drag, then a big, free concert in the town plaza. Jones, in particular, is a genial and generous wingman, playing mandolin and lap steel with virtually the entire cast each night; they, in turn, are thrilled to have their songs graced by a Zeppelin legend. The crowds are practically family as well: 700 people each night at Hotel California, where there are reserved tables and nominal general admission; and about 4,000 people in the finale at the plaza, most of them Mexicans from the town and surrounding area.

"I've played a million festivals — all super uptight, guys with clipboards going, 'Do you have the right pass?'" Buck notes. "I want this to represent more of who I am. These are my friends. I like the fact that the bands sit in with each other. We'll go long some nights. Big deal — you pay the help more."

At La Morena, Buck's desired vibe is in full effect: Gary Louris of the Jayhawks performs the first of the weekend's many David Bowie covers, "Starman"; McCaughey honors the late Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin with that band's "I Wish I Was Your Mother"; and Wynn turns the stomping menace of "Medicine Show, which he originally recorded in 1984 with his band the Dream Syndicate, into bluegrass noir with Jones on mandolin. A long dinner break is followed by another acoustic hootenanny in the bar at the Todos Santos Inn, loosely led by Buck's longtime friend Kev'n Kinney of the Georgia band Drivin N Cryin.

"Tell me, is there a better festival you've ever been to?" Buck asks me, blunt and proud, at several points: at soundchecks, between his guest spots on guitar at Hotel California; backstage at the plaza show. Kinney puts it another way, on the 20th, as he wraps up the night at the Todos Santos Inn, conducting the whole room in the final chorus of the Replacements' "Here Comes a Regular."

"We're all regulars in Todos Santos!" Kinney shouts at the end, to affirming applause. The second weekend of the best little rock festival in the world is underway.

From Rock Star to Stage Hand

"The first festival was three weekends, and each weekend was a band I played in — the Minus 5, the Baseball Project and Robyn Hitchcock," Buck says one afternoon at La Morena, recalling the 2012 birth of his Todos Santos festival over a tall glass of orange juice and the clamor of soundchecks across the street at Hotel California. "The idea was no one likes to tour in January. So I sold it to everybody with 'Come down, let's hang out, eat tacos, get drunk and play.'"

"It was really informal," confirms Wynn, who is in the Baseball Project, a group that plays original songs about America's national pasttime. "We each had our weekend, three nights, four hours a night. We filled the sets up with whatever we could do. We were a tequila bar band."

Buck wasn't planning to sell tickets, but "a simple announcement," as he puts it, on R.E.M.'s website drew a flood of requests. To avoid the snarl of work permits, Buck arranged to donate any money to charity. "We ended up bringing in $40,000," which went to the Palapa Society, Buck says. "I also spent $40,000. But the whole point was to do it."

Buck, who is based in Portland, Oregon, vacationed in Todos Santos for several years before buying a house in 2008. "I'm not living some exotic life here," he contends. "I drive a nine-year-old car. I bought a nice three-bedroom house at the bottom of the market." The guitarist has other roots in the town. His wife's grandparents spent holidays here in the Eighties, staying in a trailer. When R.E.M. announced their dissolution in September 2011, Mills and Stipe gave a handful of interviews. Buck did none, retreating to Todos Santos. 

"He wanted to be away from everything," says McCaughey, Buck's cohort in several bands, including the Minus 5, and an R.E.M. sideman on tours and records from the mid-Nineties until the band's end. McCaughey was with Buck in Todos Santos when R.E.M issued their breakup statement. One day, the two were "sitting in the Hotel California, having margaritas," McCaughey recalls, "and Peter said, 'I bet they'd give us free drinks if we just played covers.' That is literally how this whole thing started."

Erick Ochoa, the 37-year-old president of the Palapa Society, says the inaugural Todos Santos festival "changed everything for us." Started in 2003 to help children in the region seeking higher education, the charity was able to "double the amount of students we were sending to school" just with the $40,000 Buck raised in 2012. Buck also got "really involved" with the Palapa Society, visiting the local school and meeting students.

Even a modest contribution pays big dividends for the organization; for only $250 (U.S.), Palapa can pay a year's tuition for a student at a Mexican public university. As Buck tells the R.E.M. fans at the Hotel California shows, during a charity auction of artwork created by the musicians, "A lot of you have had $250 dinners you don't even remember."

Buck nearly didn't make it past the second Todos Santos festival in 2013, which featured the Posies, Alejandro Escovedo and most of the first year's alumni. "Peter has an overall concept of how the money works," McCaughey says, "but Chloe was doing a lot of the nuts and bolts, wrangling musicians. The second year, she didn't have any fun. It was too draining."

For the 2014 edition, which included reunions of Wynn's Dream Syndicate and Kinney's Drivin N Cryin and a new tradition, a local-band showcase, Buck found limited sponsorship and logistical assistance from the Cabo Agency, a tour and travel agency. "Now Chloe can have a good time," McCaughey says, while Buck runs the music with a casual flair. "Even last year, he was showing up an hour before the show, going, 'This is who will play tonight, in this order.' It's pure fun for him. And the musicians look at it like a paid vacation — with all their friends."

Buck estimates that it now costs $180,000 a year to mount his Todos Santos festival. To ensure that all proceeds go to the Palapa Society, "I write a check at the end of the year, around $100,000," he confesses. "It makes my accountant nervous." Buck is seeking additional sponsorship that allows the festival to break even each year without growing too far beyond its current intimacy and musical camraderie. "I would like to believe this could become self-sustaining. If I back out, it's over.

"I went from making millions of dollars playing rock music to losing thousands of dollars being a bad stage manager," Buck says with an edgy laugh before ambling over to the soundcheck at Hotel California. "But I would like to keep it like this. I want musicians to go, 'That was great.'" Then he cites an example from last year: founding guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers.

"Mike is not the most loquacious guy on earth," Buck notes. "But he was sitting on the plane with Patterson on the way home, going, 'Coolest gig I ever did.' Then in July, I emailed them: 'Do you guys have any interest in coming back?' One minute later, they wrote back: 'We were just waiting for you to ask.'"

Playing All Night Long

There is a moment at Hotel California, early in the evening of January 21st, when a huge chunk of the second-weekend bill — including Wynn, McCaughey, Chuck Prophet, John Jackson of the Jayhawks and Mike Mills — is lined up on stage, helping Kev'n Kinney through his Drivin N Cryin anthem "Straight to Hell." Buck is up there too on bass, making one of his many sit-in appearances.

There are no degrees of separation in that spread. Everyone on either side of Buck has a direct, enduring connection to him through friendship, recording and gigging. "It's like his version of Branson, Missouri," Wynn cracks, referring to the American capital of country-star theme parks. "There is a sense of community but a nice sense of competition," Wynn adds. "Everybody comes down here wanting to show what they can do — show that you belong and what's unique about what you do. You're in close quarters. That strips away any veneer and mystique pretty fast."

The highlights come early on the 21st — Prophet's country-blues covers of Bowie's "Queen Bitch" and Chuck Berry's "Tulane" and the stark neo-hip-hop of "You Did," Prophet's cult hit from the HBO vampire series True Blood — then fly thick and fast. The Jayhawks debut the plaintive elegance of "Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces" from the new record they've made with Buck, while Drive-By Truckers play a Southern-gothic fireball from their next LP — "What It Means," Hood raging against the epidemic of police shootings through howling guitars and Dylan-'66 organ. "When you say it wasn't racial/When you shot him in the back," Hood sings, pressing his voice to the edge of sanity, "Well I guess that means you ain't black."

On the 22nd, McCaughey draws Mills, Hood and Dave Depper of Death Cab for Cutie to the mics for a tribute to the late Glenn Frey, the Eagles' "Take It Easy." Buck joins Wynn for a Dream Syndicate sequence, threading the spectral thump of "When You Smile" from that group's 1982 debut, The Days of Wine and Roses, with modal-Byrds soloing. And there is an R.E.M. reunion you never expected to see — with a weird touch of Zeppelin — after hours at the Todos Santos Inn: Kinney making a fan's case for the late John Denver as he sings "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with Mills on harmonies and Buck playing John Paul Jones' mandolin.

The free show in the town square starts early (5 p.m.), goes late (well after midnight) and runs the gamut from the gnarly — Joseph Arthur throttling the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" with looping-guitar effects and Buck on drums — to the sublime: another R.E.M. flashback as Mills takes his signature lead in "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" with a Minus 5 that has Buck on 12-string guitar and Hood on extra vocals, deepening the Georgia connections. "If you know the song, please sing along," Mills tells the crowd. "Between the tequila and the desert air, my voice is shot." He gets plenty of help and no complaints.

Drive-By Truckers get two huge cheers, one of them after Hood suggests that if Donald Trump "ever becomes president of the United States, maybe Mexico should build a wall to keep that asshole out!" The other comes when the Truckers race through their cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died," with Jones bringing the Zeppelin on lap steel. To the locals, the Mexican-American band La Santa Cecilia may actually be the biggest draw of the night — Todos Santos festival veterans with a buoyant line in reggae-inflected rock en Español and a flirty vocal powerhouse in singer Marisol Hernandez. Jones, inevitably, joins them on mandolin. Death Cab for Cutie's "Fall on Me" with Buck and Mills has already gone viral by the time that band closes the show and the festival entourage has rolled to the Todos Santos Inn for another hootenanny.

In our conversation at La Morena, Buck is cautious about promising to mount a sixth Todos Santos Music Festival next year. "Part of the deal, I always felt, was that every penny from ticket sales, merchandise and donations goes to charity, with none taken off the top," he says. "We have to make up the costs with sponsorship, and as yet that hasn't happened." He admits that one reason for doing the interview is "to let people know how cool this is.

"I'm not trying to reach the kids in Cabo doing jello shots," Buck states firmly. "If it gets too big, it gets spoiled. I can keep doing it. But it depends on the day I discover I'm spending more time trouble-shooting than I am enjoying it."

Any doubts have evaporated, at least for this year, when Buck hits the Todos Santos Inn on the last night. He takes a turn at the mike, singing a new original song that goes with the clamor at the bar — "Let's Get Fucked Up." And Buck can't resist asking, once again, before closing time, "Isn't this the best festival you've ever been to? Seriously?"

The best answer: See it for yourself.