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Whenever rock is in the doldrums, it usually revives itself by looking to foreign sources for a fresh infusion of energy. These days, with American alt-rock a joyless mountain of mediocrity, it's easy to see why pop-music critics are getting so hot and bothered about the movement known as Rock en Espanol.
Rock en Espanol has become an umbrella term for various strains of rock and underground music sung in Spanish. The movement is rooted in Mexico, but it's become an increasingly potent force in the United States and throughout Latin America.
What makes the best Rock en Espanol bands so fresh is the seeming guileless innocence with which they combine punk, pop, New Wave, metal, hip-hop, reggae and Latin rhythms. When you listen to Molotov (often labeled "the Mexican Beastie Boys") or Cafe Tacuba, you get some of the same sense of exhilaration that emanated from the CBGB bands of the late '70s or the L.A. hard-core scene of the early '80s.
With its sizable Hispanic population, the Valley should be up there with L.A. as a prime market for Rock en Espanol, but it simply faces too many crippling obstacles: No radio support, no large club that caters to this crowd, and a shortage of local Rock en Espanol bands.
Well, if Dan Cortez has anything to say about it, those obstacles won't be around much longer. Cortez, the former director of Hispanic marketing for Celebrity Theatre, has started his own promotion company called DC PoP, and has lined up the Melody Lounge to house Saturday night Rock en Espanol shows on a weekly basis.
For several months while at Celebrity Theatre, Cortez brought shows to Toolies Country on Tuesday nights. But he knew that the music couldn't fully reach its intended audience until he found a club willing to part with a weekend night.
"The people that went to Toolies, 70 to 80 percent were the same every week," Cortez says. "What we discovered was that there were many people who said, 'This is great, but I can't come out on Tuesday nights.' So we knew we needed a weekend. But there isn't a nightclub that's Latin that's going to give you a weekend night, because most of those places are already successful with their format. So we just kinda chanced upon the Melody, now that it's changing."
Cortez launches his Saturday night Rock en Espanol showcases at the Melody (or Melodia Latina, if you're down with the cause) with a Saturday, August 15, performance by the wonderfully quirky L.A. alterna-pop quintet Hijos del Sol (Children of the Sun). The band's music is much too rhythmically eclectic to pin down, but it often reveals an affecting country-punk side that recalls the glory days of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, The Long Ryders, and Rank and File.
The August 15 show cements the Melody's move toward a decidedly Latin direction, with Thursdays focusing on Spanish dance music, and Fridays leaning toward salsa and merengue.
Cortez realizes that while many of these bands are huge on their home turf, without radio support they won't have drawing power in the Valley. That's why he's taken the programming reins in his own hands, buying up a block of time on KPHX-AM 1480 every Wednesday and Thursday, from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
"The reason why that's critical is because if we want to promote Rock en Espanol concerts, we need a radio outlet," Cortez says. "So the fans of this kind of music would know that there's a radio show that they can listen to, to find out what's going on, find out what bands are coming to town.
"Not only that, but say there's a band that's newly signed by BMG, and it's a great band, but they're not getting radio play, we would then feature that band. We'd basically play the hell out of them, so people would get used to hearing them, and want to see them in concert."
Cortez hopes that the Melody's Tempe location will draw people who resisted venturing out to Toolies ("It was on the west side, and when has the west side been known for live music?").
"It's a small place, but it's gonna be a good place to do a lot of these bands, 'cause we're gonna be able to attract the fans that Toolies wasn't able to attract: the ASU students, the kids that live in Scottsdale, that live in the East Valley, and central Phoenix, and who can go out on Saturday and Thursday nights."
At this point, the Valley's Rock en Espanol and swing scenes are in similar positions, in that both of them attract loyal audiences for national shows but neither has produced enough first-rate local bands. In fact, the Toolies showcases were partly undone when Phoenix's reigning Rock en Espanol band, Casa de Locos, broke up in May. Until that time, Cortez had used Casa de Locos as his ace in the hole, either to open for national acts or to fill in on weeks when a national act couldn't be lined up.
The band's split decimated the local Rock en Espanol scene, but other bands appear willing to fill their shoes. Among them are Virus, a raw Ramones-like contingent, a new group called Dios Elefante (which will debut at Toolies' final Rock en Espanol showcase on Tuesday, August 25), and a newly reconfigured Casa de Locos, without their old lead singer Durango.
Cortez believes that the Valley scene will need to grow slowly, even if it means that bands that are huge in Mexico and play the House of Blues in L.A. need to play small clubs here. He compares it to Garth Brooks going to Germany and having to play a club gig there. With daring marketing--such as Los Fabulosos Cadillacs taking a financial loss by touring with Cherry Poppin' Daddies, in order to reach a new audience--this music has shown it has appeal for the American masses.
"Not only are there a lot of people out there who like this kind of music that we haven't reached yet, but more and more people are getting into it, like second- and third-generation Chicanos are starting to go to these clubs and saying, 'Hey, this is pretty cool,' or, 'This reminds me of the trip I took to Mexico where I heard this kind of music.' And the Anglos are saying the same thing," Cortez says.
"The crowd that would be coming to these shows are the same makeup--the alternative dress, dressed in black--as the rock crowd. They're rockers, basically. It's just that they're brown."
Hijos del Sol are scheduled to perform on Saturday, August 15, at Melody Lounge in Tempe. Doors open at 8 p.m.
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org