Monterrey’s Pal Norte 2019 festival review – a Mexican standoff between The 1975 and Arctic Monkeys

Pictures by Jenn Five

You can almost sense it in the air, can’t you: the faint whiff of cider, the crackle of falafel grease warming in its pan, the soundcheck thuds of a 2005 indie band drifting into your tent at the crack of noon… yes, festival season is almost upon us, and while we’re gearing up for ours over here in beautiful Brextopia, other parts of the world are already in full swing with theirs. So in a can’t-wait-won’t-wait spirit, NME hopped over to Mexico’s gigantic Pal Norte festival, a Reading & Leeds-sized extravaganza in the northern city of Monterrey. Having taken place last weekend, Pal Norte already put in a bid for the best single day’s line-up of the summer, and we were only in March. Friday 22 saw a showdown between The 1975 and Arctic Monkeys – arguably Britain’s biggest and best contemporary bands – playing back-to-back. Who would be the victor? Well, the audience, of course. 

Pal Norte 2019 (Press)

The sheer size of the site means there’s plenty to explore at Pal Norte: there’s a lake on which you can ride a pedalo swan while taking in the sounds from the cabana-like DJ stages nearby, there’s a salsa-soaked dream of an eating area boasting real-deal Mexican grub for pocket money, and the beer – oh, the beer – comes with a spicy rim should your heart desire. Yes, they do things a little differently in Mexico, not least with the ‘secret performances’ which take place during the switchover between acts. A klaxon goes off and up pops… well, who knows really? NME caught a singing cowboy and a Latino pop band; they are, apparently, performances of recent novelty hits or appearances by well-loved national treasures. They don’t necessarily mean much to a visiting Brit, but it’s certainly fun to see the crowd go wild for them.

The 1975 at Pal Norte 2019 (Jenn Five/NME)

But us Brits did have plenty to be proud about on the festival’s first day. Appearing on the Tecate Original stage, The 1975 brought a slightly slimmed down version of their recent arena show, though that still meant there was a monolithic screen on stage, dancers the Jaiy twins and a saxophonist. Despite what their sleeve art might have you believe, minimalism isn’t always the Manchester band’s thing.

The show found Matty Healy in a particularly playful mood. Wearing a tour T-shirt from 1970s prog-rock band Yes and a pair of outrageous red flares, he mugged for the cameras in the photo pit during an opening ‘Give Yourself A Try’, did his best to recreate the ‘Sincerity Is Scary’  travelator dance minus the travelator and wiggled his bum with wild abandon during ‘Love Me’, which was, apparently, a last minute addition to the set, having informed the crowd, “We’re gonna play you some extra songs because we’ve had a drink.” That drink was likely tequila – they earlier told NME they visited an agave farm on the trip up to Monterrey.

Before ‘Love Me’, the anthem of narcissists everywhere, Healy playfully insisted everyone pay him their undivided attention. “I will genuinely resent any attention on other people,” he scolded. “And it’s not about ego it’s… Hey! Be quiet, have some respect! I’m trying to do my thing!” 

But it wasn’t all joking around. The pitch-shifting, Kanye-like ‘I Like America And America Likes Me’ was performed with such intensity that, by the end of it, Healy was collapsed in a puddle on the stage, like a deflated balloon. An epic ‘I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) and a ferocious ‘Love It If We Made It’ further ramped up the drama, and the show ended with the brilliant pronouncement that closed their recent run of arena shows, up on the big screen: “ROCK & ROLL IS DEAD. GOD BLESS.”

Arctic Monkeys at Pal Norte 2019 (Jenn Five/NME)

But if rock & roll really is dead, then nobody told the thousands of Arctic Monkeys fans over at the bigger Tecate Light stage. The band are, clearly, huge news in Mexico – we lost count of how many people were wearing Monkeys T-shirts of various eras. Seen back-to-back, The Monkeys’ show highlighted the differences between Britain’s two biggest contemporary ‘guitar bands’. Where The 1975’s show is an explosion of colour, Arctic Monkeys perform flanked by black and white screens; The 1975’s stage set is restless and ever-changing, but watching The Monkeys is like peering into their rehearsal room: elements are static, but there’s an intimacy to it that’s rare in a huge, outdoor show.

And as with last year’s run of UK shows, the setlist somehow manages to cohere the different ages of ape into a thrilling whole, blending the sci-fi loungecore of 2018’s ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ with their spiky earlier material. It’s a show that’s so well rehearsed that drummer Matt Helders can sip a pint while playing, but it’s utterly enthralling from start to finish: a dream Monkeys performance that rattles through ‘Do I Wanna Know’, ‘Brianstorm’, ‘Snap Out Of It’ and ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’ within the first half hour.

Beginning the show in a safari jacket and shades, Alex Turner looked every bit the louche traveller, though his language skills could use some work. “Thank you thank you muchas gracias por favor,” he said at one point. No matter: we were all too interested in his hair to pay attention. Yup, it’s back, and it’s neither shaven, nor slicked back with your grandad’s old pomade, nor quiffed up.

The set takes us to the Tranquility Base via old favourites dreamy (‘Cornerstone’), sexy (‘Arabella’) and funky (‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High’). Towards the end of the set, Turner tells the audience, “I don’t know much about a science book, but this is a hell of a crowd.” And he’s right – there’s Monkeys fever going on out here in Mexico.

A Day To Remember at Pal Norte 2019 (Jenn Five/NME)

If Friday was the Battle Of Britain, Saturday had more of an American flavour: both northern, central and southern American.

Representing Spanish-language music in a shared slot on the main stage were Spain’s Hombres G and Argentina’s Enanitos Verdes, two veteran bands who’ve been on a joint world tour together. Playing back-to-back, they drew arguably the biggest crowd at the whole festival. The Hombres, with their solid indie-rock sound, couldn’t help but mind you of Oasis, even if lead singer David Summers, with his silver hair and glasses, seemed to be more Noel than Liam on the hell-raiser scale. Enanitos Verdes, meanwhile, dealt in epic rock, ending their set with blaring sax that brought to mind Pink Floyd in full swing. Given they’ve been going since 1983 and 1979 respectively, it’s fair to say we’re pretty slow to the party on these dudes, but hey, better late than never.

Carlos Santana at Pal Norte 2019 (Jenn Five/NME)

A Mexican-American rocker whose music did conquer British shores appeared too: the one and only Carlos Santana, who – it really goes without saying – was certainly very good at playing guitar. Backed by a full band and multiple singers, his was a joyful set that incorporated Santana classics like ‘Black Magic Woman’ along with campy cover versions. 

Representing the Yanks, Florida’s metalcore pop punks A Day To Remember put in a thrilling performance with crowd-surfing aplenty and a rare outing for their cover of Mandy Moore’s ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’. “We haven’t played a show in over a year and Holly shit what an amazing way to come back,” singer Jeremy McKinnon told the crowd. 

Later on the same stage, LA’s LANY were greeted by the kind of reaction usually reserved for boybands. Returning the adoration, frontman Paul Klein hopped in among the crowd during the very first song, and promised to come back “forever”. 

Kings Of Leon at Pal Norte 2019 (Jenn Five/NME)

The same energy couldn’t be found from Kings Of Leon, who closed the main stage. The Nashville foursome perform with what could best be described as a grim sense of duty. There’s no passion there any more, just going through the motions. Their sex fire has burned out. 

So just when it seemed like a brilliant festival was going to end on a damp squib, Pal Norte delivered a little Mexican magic to send us home. Just striking up at the other side of the site were La Sonora Dinamita, a Colombian group who play the cumbia music that’s enduringly popular in Central and South America, and who dress like someone who watched Strictly Come Dancing and decided the professionals could look a teeny bit jazzier. The band drew a huge crowd of young people to the stage, all of whom were dancing with each other in twos and fours and in rings. It was a sight to see.

Day two’s winners, undoubtedly, were the Latin Americans.