Pa’l Norte 2017: Señor Brightside


We’re backstage at Pa’l Norte festival in Monterrey, northern Mexico, about half an hour before The Killers are due onstage for their headline set, and Brandon Flowers is trying to convince guitarist Dave Keuning that now is perhaps not the ideal time to start experimenting with mixology.

“No,” sighs the singer, “don’t mix vodka and tequila.”

You can’t blame him for getting into the Mexican national spirit. Brandon himself has been in town for a few days, acclimatising to the late March heat and sampling the very best of the local cuisine. A couple of nights earlier he’d been spotted at Tacos Primo, a great local joint that serves the best tacos I’ve ever eaten. Each taco costs just 15 Pesos each (about 64p) for bistec or carnitas, and the secret to their superlative taste seems to be frying the tortillas in the steak fat.

“I think the tortilla is a really important part,” concurs Brandon. “We were watching their process at Primo. You could put anything in a good tortilla and it would be really great.”

Brandon’s a man of the world, so I want to know how he ranks them against his personal lifetime of taco-eating? “They were up there with the best tacos I’ve ever had,” he confirms, although he points me towards another couple of contenders: “When we’re in Guadalajara we have a place on the street that we go, Tacos Jorge. At home in Vegas, it’s got to be Tacos El Gordo, ‘fat taco’.”

There you have it. Never let it be said that NME doesn’t ask the meatiest questions. I also take the opportunity to grill the band on the progress of their fifth album. “It’s sounding good,” offers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr of their new songs. “We have a problem with taking two steps forward and one step back, so that makes it take longer. We keep asking ourselves: ‘What does a fourpiece band do? How do you keep it fresh?’ It’s a constant exercise in experimentation.”

The band confirm that the record will be out this year, and that they’ll have new material to play by the time they headline Hyde Park on July 8. There’s no new stuff tonight, so the 85,000 people packed into Monterrey’s Parque Fundidora have to settle for just being reminded how many indie dancefloor fillers the band have written over the years. Which is a lot, even if you just listen to their debut. Watching thousands of Mexicans scream along to ‘Somebody Told Me’, ‘Smile Like You Mean It’, ‘Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine’, ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ and ‘Mr Brightside’ in 2017, you’re tempted to conclude that ‘Hot Fuss’ has aged better than any of its early-00s peers. After the show, like so many rock stars, Brandon Flowers only has one thing on his mind. “We’re going again tonight,” he says. “Straight from the stage to Tacos Primo.”

There is, of course, more to Monterrey than just criminally good tacos. A bustling industrial city with a population a little over one million, it’s also home to a decent live music scene. Café Iguana in Barrio Antiguo is a great indie club with at least four live rooms, including one in an old-fashioned theatre where the end of an indie band’s set was signalled by the thick red curtains immediately drawing shut across the stage. You don’t get that at Birthdays. The best cocktails in town are at Río Mississippi 105-B, who do frankly obscene things with mezcal.

Then there’s Pa’l Norte itself, a sprawling festival which runs its two main stages with ruthless efficiency. Located side-by-side, the moment a band on the first stage finishes the next band starts up on the second stage. Never a moment wasted, although when you’re supposed to pop for a wee or to the bar is anyone’s guess. In what might be a stroke of genius, there’s also a third, smaller stage just to the right of the two main ones. Known as the Sorpresa (‘Surprise’) stage, the line-up is unannounced and the secret sets last just 5 or 10 minutes, making them perfect for one-hit wonders. Wondering why there’s a five-minute gap between Kaskade finishing and Jason Derulo starting? Surprise! Here’s Las Ketchup singing their 2002 novelty single ‘The Ketchup Song’. Got 10 minutes before The Offspring come on? Surprise! Here’s Redfoo playing the only two LMFAO songs you’ve heard of, and another one you haven’t, and taking his trousers off and wiggling his dick in his tiny pants, and making you wonder whether anyone else could make a 10-minute set feel 40 minutes too long.

Speaking of sexually inappropriate men with bad hair, it wouldn’t be 2017 without Donald Trump. MIA performed her weekend-stealing high-energy set in front of a huge metal wall dividing the stage in two. If you somehow missed the significance of that, just 200km south of the border, she spelled it out by getting her DJ to play Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ and singing along: “Wall, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Having stuck her middle finger up at Trump, she decides to “pull up on the politics” and play what she calls “the most romantic song I’ve ever written.” It’s ‘Teqkilla’ – like I said, in Mexico everyone gets into the local spirit eventually.

Published by NME.