Music News

Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs

According to VH1's special of the same name, broadcast on August 19, one of the "100 Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Moments on Television" is Ricky Martin's first U.S. appearance at the 1999 Grammy Awards. Martin's flashy presentation -- dancers, mammoth horn section, lavish production values and dizzying choreography, including a one-man Busby Berkeley-style staircase ascension which capped the performance by poising Himself at the top of the heap, or the world, or some such metaphorical conceit -- knocked the pop world over on its collective ass, according to a handful of critical commentators, by inaugurating a "crossover Latin revolution" in popular music.

Well, within its milieu, maybe it was. Let's leave aside Los Lobos and completely forget about Ritchie Valens, Flaco Jimenez or even the Sir Douglas Quintet for a while and assume that, for the vapid modern-day pop-music industry, basic Latin chord progressions and rhythms coupled with relentless, seriously aggressive mainstream production qualifies as an authentic musical revolution, a cultural shakeup. Let's say that's right. At any rate, somebody believes it; somebody somewhere is still buying into that myth; somebody among us is responsible for perpetuating all that insanity.

Maybe that someone is close at hand. Maybe it's the person sitting next to you, on the bus or at the DMV, as you flip through this issue.

No, don't look around. You'll only draw attention. And don't hate these people, either; pity them. They'll get no better than they deserve. They'll never know, nor would they appreciate, the embarrassment of riches to be found on the latest releases by Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs, and Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys.

They'd never understand what a beautiful thing it is to hear Tex-Mex swing played lovingly and with true devotion, as it is on Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs' Pig Latin, an accordion- and percussion-heavy compilation that collects 15 cuts from the group's decadelong history. They wouldn't know what to do with this damn-near-perfect compilation, which ranges over five studio albums, a couple of singles and a handful of unreleased tunes. They wouldn't appreciate the sopaipilla-sweet harmonies of "Tina Mas Fina," or the plaintive "Bordertown," or the hilarious beer-soaked swagger of "Hasta Mañana Iguana." And as for the spot-on covers of Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and Doug Sahm's "Mendocino," here treated to a wobbly Vox Jaguar organ arrangement . . . let's just call it more fun than they'd deserve.

Not you, you're smarter. You'd dig the fact that this album plays like a spiritual tribute to the late Sahm, kicking off with his classic '69 single and running through covers and originals that ring genuine all the way through, before closing with a rip-it-to-shreds version of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs' "Woolly Bully," signaling that this is not only a band that can play Tex-Mex like it was meant to be played, but it's a band that knows its history, too.

You'd love the way this record swings easily from Spanish to English and back again, you'd love the goofy cover that depicts a dancing girl riding a fat pig, you'd love the sound of serious musicians playing together and loving it so much it comes through in every accordion note, every plucked mandolin string, you'd love everything about this album. You'd play it over and over the next time you threw a cookout, with a big iron tub full of ice and beer in the backyard and party lights winking overhead. It'd make you so happy you'd sing along, even if you didn't know or understand all the words. That's what kind of an album Pig Latin is.

And speaking of swinging albums, you'd also like Night Tide, the new one from Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. Under the direction of their generously physiqued bandleader -- "Big" Sandy is just that -- this SoCal-based quintet rips through an equally generous rockabilly/Western swing list on its seventh full-length album since 1994, coming on the heels of excellent releases like Radio Favorites and Jumping From 6 to 6. As on previous albums, Big Sandy and company intertwine mariachi, L.A. lowrider doo-wop harmonies, hillbilly slap-bass and country shuffle into a stewpot full of goodies: Pedal steel guitar, upright bass and Big Sandy's own hollow-body electric propel rave-ups like "Let Her Know," "Between Darkness and Dawn" and "Give Your Loving to Me."

The Fly-Rite Boys know how to slow the house down as well, lending just the right melancholy notes to Sandy's soulful crooning on tracks like "Tequila Calling," "When Sleep Won't Come (Blues for Spade)" and the Roger Williams gem "A Man Like Me."

There are echoes of Bill Haley and His Comets (particularly on "Let Her Know"), Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and even Gene Autry and early Johnny Cash in the Fly-Rite Boys' music, which is no small feat, given how steeped these players are in the musical history of the American Southwest. Unraveling the threads of Western swing, jump boogie and rockabilly that served as a catalyst for the very emergence of rock 'n' roll, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys aren't throwbacks; they're solid and proficient craftsmen. You can faintly hear the early Sun Records influence coming through the wires when the band really gets to rocking, as on the excellent instrumental "South Bay Stomp," but they can pull back to hillbilly roots on "A Man Like Me" and cut West on "My Time Will Come Someday" without grinding a gear. This outfit carries a lot of history on its capable shoulders, and carries it extremely well.

You're not going to find such "crossover" moments as are enshrined on Pig Latin and Night Tide televised on the Grammys, unless a big wind knocks this year's horses completely off the tote board. But albums like these are reminders that for every bull-size "cultural revolution" the industry tries to sell, there are dozens of smaller bands pulling the cultural yoke year after year, in the service of giving you listening pleasures you won't find on cable. Give these a spin.

And on second thought, show this review to your Ricky Martin-listening acquaintances, should you happen to keep company with anybody like that. God knows, they need a hit of this stuff even more urgently than you.

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Eric Waggoner