REVIEW: Tropicália Fest is a delicious mix of music, tacos

Morrissey, former frontman of The Smiths, triumphantly closes Tropicália Music & Taco Festival on Saturday night with an eccentric performance. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Somekh)

Against the shimmering skyline of downtown Long Beach, former The Smiths frontman Morrissey closed Saturday night at Tropicália Music & Taco Festival with his signature showmanship — a fulfilling end to a riveting yet incomplete day one.

After a slow start in the early afternoon, during which many patrons lounged about in the grass and along the waterfront of Queen Mary Park, singer and producer Toro Y Moi drew a sizeable crowd to the main Chalino stage as the festival entered its golden hour. His groovy, electronic pop sound perfectly captured the relaxed mood created by sunlight reflecting off attendees’ content faces as they swayed to the music.

On the opposite side of the festival grounds, accessible by pedestrian bridge or underground tunnel, the Chavela and Juanga stages alternated acts throughout the afternoon. Surf punk band The Frights’ performance saw crowdsurfers rhythmically rising and disappearing into a tide of moshing bodies. Fronted by Mikey Carnavale’s charisma, the group created an energetic environment the entire time with head banging and improvised dance moves of their own.

As chilling reverberations signaled the close of The Frights’ set, rapper Speak! launched into his half-hour number at the adjacent stage, spurring a massive audience migration across the lot. Paying homage to the festival’s Latinx roots, the rapper proudly announced his Mexican heritage and energized the crowd through call-and-answer chants in Spanish. However spirited his vocal delivery, it wasn’t enough to draw more than a meager crowd and Speak! failed to utilize the full space of the stage, causing an already-tight venue to feel even smaller.

When indie folk singer Frankie Cosmos took the Chavela stage next, audiences once again scrambled to switch between sets — a commotion that could have been avoided by a larger site or more strategic stage placement.

With a paralyzingly ethereal voice and an endearingly gracious personality, Frankie Cosmos effectively commanded an expanding audience as the festival became more crowded. In closing, she garnered cheers for mentioning the upcoming midterm elections Tuesday and imploring her fans, “Please vote, and bring a friend.”

True to its name, Tropicália featured a generous selection of taco and other Latinx food trucks scattered across the park. Past 5 p.m., all food vendors converted to only vegetarian and vegan menus — amazingly, this switch hardly compromised the flavors or authenticity of the dishes. From tortas and loaded nachos to cheeseburgers and handheld funnel cakes, the food selection was varied and creative enough to satisfy any craving.

Unfortunately, aside from food and live music, the festival provided very few other leisure activity options, save for a few merchandise stalls and games — including cornhole and a large-scale connect four board. This caused many patrons to lounge aimlessly in between sets or in between meals and the festival would have benefited from more merchant booths and art installations beyond papel picado banners strung across walls.

Back on the Chalino stage,  American Colombian singer Kali Uchis had the formidable task of warming up an eager crowd for its headliner Morrissey — a duty she did not shy away from as she delivered an explosive performance.

Donning glittery gold pants and a gem-encrusted gold corset, the “Isolation” songstress looked and sounded like a million bucks, marking the first time all day the mainstage had been used to its full potential. Midway through the set, she admitted to the crowd in a humanizing moment that she had ripped her pants and quibbed, “It happened to Spongebob, it can happen to anyone.” A departure from her previous performances, Kali Uchis demonstrated a newfound ability to engage an audience through conversation as much as through music.

In the  most highly anticipated performance of the evening, rock singer Morrissey burst onto stage belting out The Smiths’ hit “William, It Was Really Nothing.” Dressed in all black and a T-shirt bearing his name over James Dean’s face, Morrissey paced the length of the stage several times as he sang and employed passionate gestures that spoke to his flamboyant flair.

At once, the audience’s fervency was apparent; outstretched arms reached for him, people half-jokingly shouted for him to take his shirt off (a request he later obliged) and a few fans even leaped on stage to embrace him, only to be thrown off by security guards.

Unfazed by the chaos, Morrissey cycled through his setlist and remained upbeat and dramatic as ever during his solo gems, chief among them “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” In between songs, he thanked the audience and professed his love for Mexico in Spanish, drawing roaring cheers. His voice dripping with sentimentality and his sharp-tongued lyrics ringing with eccentricity, Morrissey’s masterful and captivating performance proved why he has maintained an unwavering stardom since the 1980s.

In the end, a spectacular headlining performance was hardly enough to save Tropicália from a day of subpar performances and lack of festival activities. Hopefully, future iterations of the festival will see more dynamic elements without compromising the excellence or diversity of its food and artists.