Something strange happened at last weekend’s Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love at El Cosmico, in Marfa. Five hundred concertgoers—most staying in one of a hundred tents, six trailers, four safari tents and four yurts—three security guards, four soundmen, and one lighting specialist heard the voice of Led Zeppelin perform onstage. It seemed random, and a little surreal, but somehow, there was Robert Plant, live in the middle of nowhere.
The “somehow” was a well-timed invitation from Liz Lambert, the Austin-based hotelier behind Marfa’s El Cosmico , a campsite “hotel” built around restored vintage trailers. Plant’s appearance was supposed to be a surprise, but in the days leading up to the festival—which, with the tents and abundance of free-roaming dogs and children, felt more like a 1960s-style “gathering”—there was buzz that the singer-songwriter Patty Griffin would not be playing her Thursday night set solo. Instead, she’d be debuting a new band featuring her boyfriend, Plant. The small crowd suggests that the rumor sounded too good to be true, and that for all its attention, Marfa is still a geographically inconvenient place to visit on a whim.
What may not have been a terribly well-kept secret still felt unexpected. On a small handmade stage a few hundred feet from U.S. 67, under the moniker Crown Vic, Plant and Griffin shared vocals on Led Zeppelin classics like “Black Dog” and “Misty Mountain Hop.” Plant might always remember the show as Crown Vic’s first gig, but to the people of Marfa, a visit from a bona fide rock icon seemed like an important step in Marfa’s slow, but steady, evolution into a viable music city. Sure, it’s still a “what if,” but what if Marfa had a true calling card beyond Donald Judd’s minimalist boxes?
“Marfa is a small community, but it’s a small community of people that have truly committed themselves to the arts and creativity,” said Lambert, a West Texas native whose first Marfa project was the renovation of the fifties-era Thunderbird Hotel. “That extends nicely to music. Musicians come here and find a smart and grateful audience.”
Despite appreciative residents, the town of roughly two thousand is simply too small and too remote to ever be spoken about in the same way as Austin, "The Live Music Capital of the World," but it is developing a respectable reputation as the place Where Big Names Play for Small Crowds.
During the week leading up to the Trans-Pecos Festival, the popular instrumental rock outfit Explosions in the Sky played at Ballroom Marfa, a contemporary cultural arts space that has hosted acts like Sonic Youth, Billy Joe Shaver, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Lyle Lovett. A few days later, the Heartless Bastards, a powerful Austin-by-way-of-Ohio rock band, played Padre’s, a two-year-old restaurant-bar and nightclub that is the city’s sole year-round music venue. (It’s also the only place in town to get a Bloody Mary on a Friday morning.) Add the singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin’s surprise set at the festival, and you have a week’s worth of music listings that could have been torn out of the pages of a newsweekly in Portland or Chicago.
Marfa’s location is a mixed blessing for touring musicians. The disadvantage is obvious: it’s too isolated to attract significant crowds. (At Padre’s, a good weekend show with a cover might draw 80 people.) But it’s virtually on the way for bands traveling from California to Texas, affording younger bands on a tight budget a paid layover gig. For established acts, it’s a vacation in a town they’ve read about that doubles as a chance to play for a sophisticated arts-inclined audience.
Though Marfa is a good seven-hour drive from Austin, Austinites and Austin expatriates are influencing the scene. Both Lambert and David Beebe, the co-owner of Padre’s who spent years bouncing between Austin and Houston as a working musician and live-music venue manager, have enough influence to lure their friends from the big cities. In April, Lambert and C3 Presents of Austin reeled some major talent into Marfa, when they booked the town on the Railroad Revival Tour, Mumford & Sons’ Amtrak-driven “railway musical experience.”
“What’s happening at the Ballroom, with Liz, and at Padre’s has given people another reason not to just want to come here, but to actually come here,” said Beebe, whose club has featured Texas talent like Johnny Bush and James McMurtry, as well as national acts like Sean Lennon’s The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. “You need to give people a real reason to get in the car and drive. Something like the Railroad Revival or Robert Plant does the trick.”
There’s no question Plant wouldn’t have played Marfa without Lambert as host. Griffin is one of her closest friends, and Plant officially relocated to Austin earlier this summer to be with Griffin. It’s a coup for Austin to call itself home to Plant—we’ll leave it to the Willie Nelson faithful and Led Zeppelin fanatics to argue which is the biggest rock star to live in the area—but it’s Marfa that got Crown Vic’s debut gig, a show that ended with Griffin promising to return next year. Then they played Led Zeppelin’s classic “Rock And Roll.” And rock ’n’ roll they did, in the most unexpected of places.