December, it’s the most wonderful time of year. The vibes are just right, everyone is happy and full of cheer. The weather is exactly what we have all wished for. Endless drinks are flowing, while surrounded by friends and family. No, I am not talking about the holiday season, I’m talking about Closer To The Sun. Slightly Stoopid’s all-inclusive Mexican vacation experience is every reggae fan’s tropical dream come true. And if you have never heard of it, where have you been? This exclusive and highly sought-after concert experience, which has its home at Hard Rock Riviera Maya every December, just wrapped its ninth year with four days and nights of music by the best in our scene. This year’s lineup brought us sets by festival fixtures, Stick Figure, along with Dirty Heads, Steel Pulse, Pepper, The Movement, Denm, Common Kings, and newcomers to the Closer To The Sun Family, Little Stranger. Due to a last-minute lineup change, we were also blessed with the return of Artikal Sound System. Who could forget, the GOATs themselves, Slightly Stoopid, which along with their usual three sets of the festival, also jumped in with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe for a special Beastie Boys Tribute set.
Closer To The Sun brings us so much more than any other festival. Staying on-site is one benefit, but staying in a luxurious all-inclusive resort alongside all your favorite artists is as incredible as it sounds. One day you may be eating breakfast next to Stick Figure or taking shots at the bar with Denm, the next night you may find yourself in someone’s room while Artikal Sound System jams out with special guests. If you can stay up late enough, you’ll undoubtedly rock out to Kyle Smith doing one of his many unofficial pop-up sets around the resort. You might even catch Miles walking a bride down the aisle and officiating a wedding! With an attendance of about three thousand fans, the crowd is always loose and comfortable, unlike many American festivals where you’re packed in shoulder to shoulder. The intimacy of this festival is what brings fans back year after year. The extraordinary staff takes your drink orders throughout every set, and you never need to lose your spot. I don’t know how they always find their way back to you with your drinks, but they do it without fail. Even on the rail, servers are everywhere to bring you endless tequila and cocktails. There is a great selection of food at every stage and if you’re still hungry when you stumble back to your room at 3 AM, pick up your phone for 24-hour room service that you can enjoy in your balcony hammock or your rooftop hot tub.
However, the main reason we’re all here is for the music, so let’s get to it. Night one brought us The Movement, opening up the festival on the main stage. Always an honor to be the band asked to open the festival, The Movement brought all their energy to this one and set the tone for an incredible weekend ahead. A constant favorite at Closer To The Sun, Stick Figure closed out the main stage. As the only band that is invited back year after year, Stick showed us exactly why they are mainstays at this festival. With their incredible stage presence and everyone’s favorite special guest, Cocoa, these guys never fail to put smiles on faces. We saw Slightly Stoopid, Pepper, Common Kings, and The Movement on stage for features during the set, as Closer To The Sun has no shortage of amazing collaborations.
After Stick, we headed over to the late-night stage…and it was late, having a start time of midnight and going until 3 AM. Being so late at night after a long day in the sun, you know the bands scheduled for this time slot need to be high-energy to keep the crowd hyped. So, who better than Hawaii’s own Pepper boys to dance all over the stage humping their instruments and each other and of course always making their hilarious sexual jokes to keep us all energized and awake. Pepper brought us bass-heavy tunes we can shake our butts and groove to into the early morning. For this set, the boys threw in some songs they have never played live, including “Stay High” off their latest release, Makai, as well as some deep cuts like “Green Hell.”
Opening up the music for day two was G. Love playing his hip-hop blues and Philly soul at an acoustic poolside set. It was the perfect start to the day, dancing and swaying in the pool to G. Love’s laid-back vibes. Next up was the always anticipated Slightly Stoopid beach stage set. What better than dancing with your feet in the sand or floating in a lagoon while listening to the boys flow with guests like G. Love, Chali 2na, and Don Carlos. With a nice little block of punk songs in the set, we also saw a water mosh pit, or you could call it a splash pit. The boys closed out their set with “If This World Were Mine” along with Common Kings and Chali 2na, and it was phenomenal. I always love when Stoopid has special guests for this tune, definitely a favorite of mine
Common Kings opened the main stage on night two with the typical high-energy set we’re used to seeing from them. If you have seen them live, you know their recorded albums don’t do them justice. Their sets are always perfectly curated, as one song seamlessly flows into the next without a single note out of place. JR King’s vocals are always so super smooth and uplifting, getting everyone in the place up and dancing. Next up were the Pepper boys again. For their main stage set, the band played Kona Town in its entirety for the final time. They have been touring all year in support of the 20-year anniversary, and I’m glad I got to see it one last time before the boys “put it to rest for another 20 years,” as Bret said. We can hope we will still see Pepper rocking out for 40 years of Kona Town in the future!
The Movement absolutely crushed it at the late-night stage. I have seen The Movement a lot over the years, I mean seriously A LOT, nine times this year alone. This had to be my favorite set by them ever. The highlight of this set was special guests Johnny Cosmic and KBong who came out for “Kingdom” and “Easy to Love You.” “Kingdom” is one of my all-time favorite songs, and seeing The Movement rock this live alongside Johnny Cosmic was once in a lifetime. They closed out the set with the super high-energy “Chainz” along with special guests Little Stranger. They definitely proved why this life and this music is just a part of us!
The melodic hip-hop duo, Little Stranger, then hyped up the late night stage with a set starting at 1:30 AM, but by the non-stop dancing of the crowd and the Stranger boys you couldn’t tell how late it was. I think I spent the entire hour set jumping up and down. As was expected, the boys closed with fan favorite “Red Rover.” Being a song they always jump in the crowd for, the guys noted “wow, this stage is really high, you know we like to jump in the crowd.” With a height I would guess at least eight feet high or more, John still found his way down to crowd-surf, while Kevin danced so hard on stage his pants fell down. I just love these guys so much!
After playing until 3 AM, the Little Stranger boys were back to open up day three with their poolside set. Although they were probably tired from the night before, you definitely could not tell. They rocked this set with some songs I was waiting to hear, “Cool Kids” and “Simon Says” and in typical Little Stranger fashion, ended the set by jumping into the crowd, this time in the pool, for a Little Stranger splash party. Denm played a mellow beach stage set which he opened acoustically for a few songs, including an unreleased track, “I’ll Be Gone,” featuring Kyle McDonald of Slightly Stoopid. Saving all his big hits and high-powered songs for the main stage, Denm relished in how nice it was to play whatever he wanted and just chill out. Highlights included an incredible cover of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and the song made exactly for this moment on the beach, “My Wave.”
This year brought the return of Dirty Heads after their controversial sets of the 2019 edition of Closer To The Sun. Following that year’s Closer, disappointed fans spoke endlessly on the festival page after the band’s performance of nearly identical sets. While bands do play the same set at many tour stops all the time, Closer To The Sun is different, as you are playing for the exact same crowd each set. To not switch it up was an understandable letdown for many fans. Well, the listen to your fans award this year goes to these guys because they brought it and then some. Their first set of the festival was a beachside acoustic set with a lot of jamming interludes and transitions between songs, as well as comedic stories by Jared and Duddy. I have never seen an acoustic set by Dirty Heads, but the sound was so full, the vibes were perfect for the beach setting, the song choices were great, spanning their whole catalog, and the banter between Jared and Duddy gave it that little something special.
Night three on the main stage brought us the roots reggae legends Steel Pulse followed by Slightly Stoopid during the annual Closer To The Sun Light Up theme night. Steel Pulse, one of the most influential reggae acts of all time, has certainly been an influence on many of the other musicians at Closer. While the crowd was glowing with various LED outfits and accessories, frontman David Hinds face was aglow with happiness as the message of equality shone brightly. Slightly Stoopid followed to close out the main stage with songs such as “Got Me on the Run” featuring special guests Kaleo and Scott Woodruff, “Baby I Like It,” featuring G. Love, and one of my favorites, “Good Life,” featuring JR King. The set certainly had no shortage of guest features. Stick Figure killed it at the late-night stage as usual. I don’t think it’s possible for these guys to ever have a bad show. Scott and Miles uplifted us with their performance of “Higher.” The highlight of the set was an appearance by the verbal Herman Munster himself, Chali 2na, for “Fish Out of Water.” Chali is always my favorite special guest of Closer and I hope they bring him back for his own set next year.
The final day of Closer brought Artikal Sound System to the beach stage for what frontwoman Logan Rex called, the most hungover performance of her life. The sun was beating down, and the air was hot and heavy, but the Artikal crew powered through the set without missing a beat. In tribute to The Skints who could not make it, the band played an absolutely phenomenal version of The Skints tune “This Town.” With Logan and drummer Adam Kampf singing vocals, this performance made me think I might just like Artikal’s version of the song better than the original! Brandon Hardesty of Bumpin Uglies joined Artikal on stage for an outstanding version of his song “Too Stoned”. I love this song, and it was beautifully done!
Common Kings were set to play the beach stage next, unfortunately after only a couple of songs, the beach was cleared out by security due to an incoming storm. While we waited for outside activities to resume, Stoopid played an acoustic set in the lobby during the annual Positive Legacy Charity Auction. Denm was up next for his main stage performance, but due to the weather, his set was moved inside at the last minute. The staff did a fantastic job of transporting all his gear over to the lobby stage and getting the soundcheck done just in time for the band to start at their scheduled time slot. Kudos to everyone for pulling that together. Demn is one of my favorite artists, and I was a little disappointed he could not play on the main stage, but I’m grateful he still got his set, albeit on a much smaller stage. After his mellow beach set, Demn brought all the high-powered songs this time around. He, and the Slum Beach Posse, played everything I was hoping to hear.
The weather had cleared in time for us to go back out to the main stage and see once and for all why Dirty Heads deserved to be here. Wow, this set was outstanding! Opening with “Heavy Water,” featuring JR King, all the way through until the final song, “Island Glow,” Dirty Heads signature blend of hip-hop and reggae had the crowd hanging on every note. Just prior to the encore, they played the most powerful, breathtaking version of “Moon Tower” I have ever seen. I think I can say, that Dirty Heads did NOT disappoint fans at all this year and definitely made the perfect Closer To The Sun comeback.
To close out the night, and the festival, we were blessed with two incredible late acts. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe jammed an entire Beastie Boys tribute set with Kyle, DeLa, and OG from Slightly Stoopid rapping our favorite Beastie lyrics. We all know Kyle’s lyrical power, but DeLa and OG, wow! I had seen the guys cover “Intergalactic” on this past summer tour, so I know how impressive these three were together, but to see an entire Beastie Boys set was mind-blowing. I danced non-stop for over an hour and loved every second of it. They jammed my all-time favorite Beastie’s song, “So What’cha Want,” and it was just as good as the original, dare I say, if not better!
At 2 AM with the vibes so high after the last set, we got what I had been waiting for all weekend, Strange A.S S. A mashup set with Little Stranger and Artikal Sound System performed only one other time at Cali Vibes, Strange A.S.S. has been a set fans hoped they would experience one day. We got it right here in musical wonderland and it was everything I dreamed it would be. Little Stranger is so talented, all they need to sound incredible is just two guys. However, it was super impressive to hear them along with a full band. With Fabian’s bass, Adam’s powerful drumbeats, John and Kevin’s smooth rhymes, and Logan’s sultry voice, Strange A.S.S.’s sound was a funky combination of reggae, hip-hop, hard rock, and a lot of quirky fun.
Thank you to Slightly Stoopid for bringing us back together at this tropical playground for another epic year! We definitely had a magical time, leaving fans already anxious to get back to the beach for the next one. The upcoming Closer To The Sun will be the tenth year, and I am sure the festival organizers are going to go all-out for this one. Until then, we can dream of warm, sunny days with a margarita in hand, while the music plays in paradise.