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Border crossing with the band

“Green & Dumb,” any one of a dozen songs that could rightly serve as a calling card for Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, came late in the band’s 2011 Circus Mexicus set and as their fans have come to do, I joined my friends arm-in-arm, all of us swaying in time with the ballad.

I had somewhere south of six Dos Equis cans still dangling from plastic rings laced between two fingers of my right hand (and somewhere north of six running ‘round my head) and I was shouting along with every familiar word, already growing hoarse as I tossed another chorus into the night air in Puerto Peñasco, at the north end of Mexico’s Gulf of California. Escapism? Sure. That’s why it felt so good.

You can’t guess exactly what somebody does for a living, how people spend their long weekdays. New friends from the trip worked in banks, mortgage offices, in various technical fields. I ran into a newscaster acquaintance at the show. Everyone has his or her working life, even freelance writers. Everyone is familiar with the monotony, the tasks, the dragging clocks of those earning hours. But in Mexico, there’s only the party.

Leaving behind one’s working persona becomes so much easier when crossing a border is involved. The planning required, even the hassles encountered — you need to bring your passport now, whereas once a driver’s license would suffice — help to accentuate the break with routine. These escapist interludes are the pulse of freedom, of recaptured youth. They’re what you put on the calendar months in advance, the pure anticipation of fun its own currency to pay the way through bullshit days and petty problems of all stripes. And they’re what stand out once a year is done — the highlights, the “I HAVE to do that again” cornerstone that keeps everything else at bay.

Live concerts can yield any number of such perfect moments, that great-to-be-alive embrace creeping up over your shoulders. But, so precisely designed for fans’ enjoyment, Roger Clyne’s Circus Mexicus is surely better than most at infusing the experience with bliss.

The centerpiece of Circus Mexicus XX, as on previous occasions, was a four-hour marathon performance from the Peacemakers, a band that’s leaned on quirky independence to guide its 12-year career, and done so well that thousands of devoted fans every year drive from Arizona to Mexico for a weekend-long party, filled with the same beachside escapism that runs so strongly through Clyne’s music.

It’s a relatively small twist of historical fate that Puerto Peñasco — which also goes by the gringo name Rocky Point — is in Mexico at all. Had James Gadsden pressed a little harder in 1853, the United States might’ve had its own port on the Sea of Cortez. And Arizona would’ve had its beach. But who would really want it?

What’s special for Clyne and the adoring hordes who make the journey is precisely that the destination is south of the border (if only 60 miles). The leave-it-all-behind romanticism that is the core of Circus Mexicus is a powerful spirit, an intoxicant in its own right. It’s all about the sun-and-sand-and-beer-and-music fun that Roger and his crowd seem to seek in equal measure. The vibe leans more than a little toward spring break, but it’s also family territory.

The Sonoran coastline is rocky and, still not yet transformed into a major resort town, Puerto Peñasco and neighboring Cholla Bay retain the half-finished aura of failed dreams. Everything — the buildings that are finished, at least — is either brand-new or seems like it never was. It’s a town where you just don’t believe the “coming soon” signs that make so many promises.

The area is filled with contrasts: the wind-swirled, lifeless expanses of sand vs. the sea, over-fished yet still full of life; the new resort and condo towers for rich gringos vs. the third-world scraping by that occurs most everywhere else; the relative safety of the small beach town vs. the drug violence that’s spiked across northern Mexico in general. Even the tides at Puerto Peñasco exist in two extremes greater than nearly everywhere else.

And that’s fitting, somehow, because it’s a place apart, at least for tourists from across the border. Yes, you’re in Mexico and don’t have to look too far to find evidence of that brute fact. But this isn’t the Mexico that dominates the airwaves these days, the Mexico of beheadings and cop-killings and corrupt officials, the Mexico of sensationalist TV news in the U.S., certainly exists, but as with any drug- or gang-related crime anywhere around the world, that violence is almost entirely confined to those actors involved in the game.

Just as it would be foolish to ignore entirely a State Department warning (at nearly 4,000 words, the current advisory is thorough, measured and reasonable), it would be foolish to conflate all of Mexico into one dark Juarez alley. Safe fun is just as available on the Mexican coast as anywhere. The biggest danger is the loss of common sense: drunk speeding, dehydration, ATV recklessness.

“Rocky Point”, the anglicized destination of that other sort of border-crosser, caters to the gringos, whether it’s the spring breakers, the weekenders or, in this case, the Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers crowd. It’s a place to let loose, however one lets loose. Eighteen-year-old college freshmen drink the beer they can’t in the states and rush into sexual encounters they wouldn’t risk at home either.

Things are different with the Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers crowd now. They might very well have walked in those flip-flops in their own time, might very well be trying to recapture the essence of that (but with a wife and kids in tow), but the stupidness of the party scene has been supplanted by safer pleasures. They’re there for the music, not the boneheaded WHOOOO!

The context of their escape, not from the restrictions imposed on youth but the responsibilities of adulthood, matters enormously. You see it in how people treat their vacation land, how they interact with the place and its in habitants. They come, they party, they spend their money, but it’s a far more sustainable type of vacationing than the slash-and-burn sort practiced by American college students. Still, the memories of more reckless times so animate the proceedings, enhancing the contrast between the easy abandon of the teenager with the more dearly bought kind practiced by weekend escape artists.

I brought my own contrasts to Circus Mexicus as well. I’d long been a Clyne fan but then gradually lost interest; now I was rejoining the fold. And I was also a Rocky Point tourist eight years removed from my last visit, stunned at the real estate boom that stacked what must be thousands of condos and hotel rooms on what I remembered as vacant beach.

My companions for the trip were Mila, Audra and Cori, veterinary technicians from Tucson and Flagstaff who’d already perfected their Circus Mexicus routine. We rented a condo (coincidentally next door to the one they had the previous year) at the Pinacate, which was one of the first large complexes to be built there, back n the early 1990s. I could look down from the balcony and see the condos I’d stayed in many years earlier, as well as the completely transformed beach stretching out to the west.

The first stop after loading the coolers with ice and beer was Sandy Beach, near the newer condos, the first real beach visit I’d had in years. The Oregon coast in winter and San Francisco’s Ocean Beach (any time of year) don’t begin to match the plunge that I could take at Rocky Point.

Friday night’s activities centered on a hot-dog cookout and a series of performances from RCPM-affiliated bands at JJ’s Cantina, a gringo favorite a few miles up the road in Cholla Bay. We were stuffed four in the cab and four in the bed of a friend’s truck, and I was surprised to find the road out there was nearly halfway paved.

The hot-dog cookout is put on every year by drummer P.H. Naffah, to benefit Esperanza Para Los Niños. Naffah is the yin to Clyne’s yang, a quiet former biology major who’s been playing drums with Clyne since their days in The Refreshments, a Tempe contemporary of the Gin Blossoms that had a quick two-album run with Mercury Records. Naffah is the only other constant in the Peacemakers (now including bassist Nick Scropos and guitarist Jim Dalton), an all-business presence holding things together at the center of the party, like the soil and stalk that supports a bright sunflower.

At JJ’s you buy beer by the case, 20 bottles of Dos Equis passed around the group till none are left and somebody gets up to fetch another box. In this way, its impossible to care about tracking how much beer actually gets consumed, and Mexican lager tends to disappear fast in the presence of Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers fans. Still, my companions are pros at this Circus Mexicus thing and the main event was still to come, so they made sure the night was guided by an easy, carefree buzz.

Framed by the bright sand and blue sky, people lined the beach as Saturday got going. The day started with the annual soccer tournament, with Roger’s Mexican Moonshine squad (named for his own brand of tequila) as the defending champion and heavy favorite. Two short fields were set up back-to-back, and the vacation setting did nothing to diminish the competitiveness. Not a soccer player, I grabbed a cup of coffee and stuck to wading in the sea, but my friends joined up with a team and advanced to the semi-finals, where they took Roger’s team to sudden-death overtime before losing. Incredibly, Roger played five games in the late morning and early afternoon, the temperature in the upper 80s, ultimately losing the championship in another lengthy sudden-death match.

Accessibility has always been a leading trait of the Peacemakers. Everyone it seems has his or her own story of meeting Roger. An old friend of mine had a first date at a Peacemakers show and later set it up with the band to propose to the girl on stage, right before the song they’d first danced to. Few bands have ever extended such a strong invitation to their fans to join in the fun. The music — driving rock, harmony-rich, with a classic jangle and some Americana influences — is the sort that’s distinct and easy to get into but never likely to draw a lot of critical praise. It’s traditional rather than innovative.

And so, with a remarkable consistency and obstinate reliance on their own style, the band has pressed on. Starting with its debut record, Honky Tonk Union, in 1999 through five successive full-lengths, an EP and three live albums, everything has been released independently on the band’s Emma Java label. It’s a word-of-mouth band that wants to keep it that way. Roger Clyne has never had anything remotely close to a platinum album and probably still makes more money from his Refreshments theme song for the animated series King of the Hill than anything else besides touring.

What matters to him is the strength of his fan base, not its breadth. That’s part of the reason he dreamed up Circus Mexicus in 2000 as the Peacemakers’ own mini-festival, a destination concert that matched exactly what they’d want as a vacation. The concert used to be held in October and May — hence the “XX” — but starting in 2009 it was consolidated to the single event, held each June.

We got to the big sandy lot, next to Chango’s Bar & Grill, well before Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers started, maneuvering close to the stage and slightly left of center. I’d seen the band eight times before, mostly at now-defunct Tucson clubs, where the cover was somewhere in the $5 range. But until a month before Circus Mexicus, I hadn’t seen the Peacemakers since 2004, and generally lost interest over that time. It’s strange to think I’d been leaning away from the band at exactly the same time my concert companions had been discovering their music.

In truth, I’d always found the crowd a little too “fratty”. And as far back as 2004’s Americano I’d thought Clyne’s unerring faith in a single muse might be risking repetition, or worse, a Jimmy Buffet-style self-parody. But Unida Cantina brought me back, its songs approaching larger themes, with a different sort of live-for-today attitude. So, I figured, once a Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers fan, always a Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers fan. Besides, who was I to refuse an invitation to have fun in Mexico?

The show kicked off with a burst of fireworks and the Refreshments’ song Mexico, with my friends Jon and Javier from The Jons on trumpet. As the chorus goes: “Well the good guys and the bad guys never work past noon around here. They sit side by side in the cantinas, talk to señoritas and drink more beer.” It’s a song that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1994 self-released debut CD Wheelie.

There’s a remarkable consistency to the whole of Clyne’s career, his Southwestern rock peppered with Spanish phrases and songs about the low-key party life to be found beachside. He always manages to extend an invitation to join him in the escape, both in song and in real life, which is the key to Circus Mexicus.

A third generation Arizonan who split his childhood between Tempe and a ranch southeast of Tucson, Clyne is a man whose biography will surely be titled “Here’s To Life.” And perhaps the subtitle will reference another of his lyrics, the songwriting persona Clyne has cultivated and stayed true to over the years: “A mad drunk and reckless troubadour.”

One performance is enough to sell anybody on the Peacemakers. From the great showmanship of Roger at the front of the stage to the communal sing-along feel that permeates the crowd, a Peacemakers show is very simply a fun time. And those sing-alongs extend throughout the set, not just the “hits” like “Banditos” and “Down Together,” running the gamut from obscure deep cuts from as far back as 1994 to songs that haven’t yet found their way onto an album.

“Pace yourselves,” Clyne kept warning the crowd throughout the 44-song performance. And for a crowd that buys individual six-packs, they did. Out where the arid madlands of Arizona and Sonora fade into the soft sand and the endless waves of the sea, we were invested in a true-to-life, familiar sort of escapism. The thing with fandom of this type — performance-focused fandom, whether it’s chasing down the Grateful Dead or Springsteen or the newer jam-band circuit — is that you’re rewarding yourself with something you know for sure that you’ll love. Devotion to Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers comes with rewards that are both easy to capture and strong in their effect.

While plenty of the crowd takes off again for Phoenix and Tucson on Sunday morning, the die-hard bums can stick around for the hangover bash out at JJ’s. The bands set up again — including Tempe’s Tramps & Thieves and Denver’s Hickman-Dalton Gang, featuring Peacemakers guitarist Jim Dalton and former Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman. We split carne asada and fish tacos and made new friends, exchanging stories about our first Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers shows.

Roger showed up, again in his Mexican Moonshine soccer jersey, and held court in a receiving line for nearly four hours, smiling, shaking hands, signing autographs, talking and posing for pictures with everybody who wanted a personal moment with him. And with long shadows taking over JJ’s patio, in the end he thanked me for my patience.

Published July 8, 2011 in Souciant Magazine.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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