Spanish is the loving tongue.
At least that's what the trite, old ballad says. Of course, Spanish--like any language--can, and does, accommodate feelings like anger and frustration just as easily as romance. But old stereotypes die hard, even when we can no longer feel their pulse. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way we react to music.
For instance, when Durango Pulido tells people he plays in a band and sings in Spanish, they generally assume he's singing mariachi ballads. Maybe some light Tejano dance tunes. Few know what to think when he tells them that his band plays full-bore, ear-shredding guitar rock. It's a combination that Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas likes to call "Spanglish" music--sung in Spanish, played in English.
About once a month, the Mason Jar turns Sundays over to Pulido's band, Casa de Locos (Crazy House), and the rest of Phoenix's small, unheralded Rock en Espanol scene. When I went in on Sunday, July 6, I naturally assumed that this was just one of Mason Jar's novelty showcases--like Drag Queen Night or a Disco Pimps gig. Basically, a gimmick to get curious people in the door once or twice.
The opening acts did little to shake that theory. The wild, Fearlike punk hostility of Straitjacket was fun, but the band's skills were a little too rudimentary even for the rudimentary rock they attempted. The following trio, Virus, affected a prettier, early-R.E.M. kind of jangle, and might have pulled it off if not for a sadistically out-of-tune bass guitar. The members wisely took their bows after only one song.
But from the beginning, it was clear that the sizable crowd was there to see Casa de Locos. Ripping through a set of originals that reflected the band members' eclectic listening habits, they moved comfortably from hard rock to Chili Pepperslike funk to a ballad that veered dangerously close to dreaded Scorpions territory. The predominantly Chicano crowd loved it all, and even those who couldn't understand a single lyric recognized that these guys know what they're doing.
So why do they have so much trouble getting decent gigs in town? "There are a lot of people who like Spanish rock, but the hard time we're having is finding a place that supports it," Pulido says. "In L.A. there's a really big [Rock en Espanol] movement, and actually, throughout Mexico. But here in Phoenix, it's still mainly regional music, like mariachi."
In a way, it's easy to recognize the problem. When it used to play at the Latino dance club El Paraiso, the band drew enthusiastic crowds of 300 to 400 every Thursday night. Its use of the Spanish language made it accessible to the club's regulars. But its sound never really fit in at a place where cumbias or mariachis are the rule.
"We used to get these incredible mosh pits going there," recalls lead guitarist Gustavo Angeles. "The guard would be scared and run into the middle of the pit, 'cause he thought there was a fight happening. They had never seen it before."
At Valley rock venues, their sound would probably be more compatible, but the language barrier might confuse a few people. As a result, they're a band without a country, or, as Pulido says with a laugh, "We're the minority in several ways."
All four band members are natives of Mexico. Gustavo and his bassist brother Francisco moved to Phoenix from Mexico City five years ago. As a teenager, Gustavo became part of the burgeoning Mexico City rock scene and cut his musical teeth playing Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix covers.
Drummer Carlos Espinoza moved here 11 years ago and played everything from country to dance-pop, while Pulido came to Phoenix 20 years ago and learned to speak English by listening to the Beatles' red-and-blue compilation sets.
The seeds were planted for the band when Pulido earned airplay on KVVA-FM as a solo act, and a DJ there suggested he put a rock band together. With a friend, he formed what he believes to be the first Latino rock group in Phoenix, Leyenda Urbana (Urban Legend). Pulido later moved to Texas, while his bandmates formed Sangre Azteca (Aztec Blood), and when he jammed with them on a return visit to Phoenix, he got so excited he decided to move back and launch Casa de Locos.
They hope an imminent CD release--with an August show planned at Mason Jar--will enhance their gig opportunities, but first they face the Catch-22 of finding record stores willing to stock it. The CD, however, does offer some evidence of an interesting, emerging style.
During its verses, "Inquietud" is a pro forma, feedback-drenched rocker, but Pulido's chorus sounds like a traditional Mexican melody dressed up in a rock arrangement. Before breaking into a Metallicalike chorus on "Una Nota," the song's folky verses make for an unlikely Chicano cousin to Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere."
The CD's undisputed peak, though, is "Reina de Mil Amores." Opening as a slow waltz, it kicks into a fast cumbia-punk beat, punctuated with outrageously flamboyant whammy-bar guitar licks from Gustavo's Ibanez. On this song at least, Casa de Locos finds a way to combine all the music it's absorbed and reshape it into something distinctive.
It's ironic that at a time when so many bands gig regularly and struggle ever to win an audience, the Rock en Espanol scene has the audience, but few chances to gig.
"We're looking at hitting the American market, but we're not sure of the reception," Pulido admits. "When we've opened for American groups, we've gotten a good reception, but club owners want to know how to package you, and I don't know how that's gonna be. It's rock 'n' roll. It's just music, and hopefully, it's enjoyable."
Who's in Town
I'm still feeling pangs of guilt about not doing any kind of recommendation for Ron Sexsmith's absolutely wonderful, but sparsely attended, July 8 show at Nita's Hideaway. With that in mind, from now on, Soundcheck will devote a bit of space to tips about roadshows not otherwise mentioned in the music section.
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This week, for instance, R&B devotees will want to check out Ann Peebles July 18 at the Rhythm Room. A former labelmate of Al Green's at Hi Records, she's still in peak vocal form, as I found out when I saw her in Memphis three months ago.
Of course, the H.O.R.D.E. Festival rolls into Desert Sky on Friday, July 18, and even if you've seen Neil Young a million times, and you're not quite into the whole nuevo-hippie H.O.R.D.E. vibe, this year's festival is worth it for the outcasts on the bill: Ben Folds Five, Morphine, and Squirrel Nut Zippers.