Category Archives: Music

Hollie Cook in Mexico City

Do you like good music? Reggae, specifically? Do you live in Mexico City? Then may I suggest seeing Hollie Cook this Thursday, May 10.

She’s also playing on Friday night (May 11), but the show’s sold out. The venue is Foro Indierocks, a club in the Roma neighborhood of downtown Mexico City. The opening band for both nights is Mexican reggae group Malamar.

She’s on tour in support of her new album Vessel of Love, which features not only her expressive voice but also a tight reggae band. The following show is on May 12 at the Akamba Festival in the town of Tequila.

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David Byrne live, 2018: an American Utopia in Mexico

David Byrne played Mexico City on Tuesday, April 4. It’s still early in the tour and he’ll head back to the U.S. after a few more dates in Mexico. Trust me, go see David Byrne, even if you only have a vague appreciation for Talking Heads. I don’t review every concert I attend, not even all the great ones. But this was more than a concert, it was a show.

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The box-like stage was totally empty—no amps, cables, or drums kits. It was bordered by hanging strings of light that looked like sparkling curtains, which the players passed through as they left and reentered the stage.

The 12 musicians and singers—I’ll call them “players” because they were more than musicians and singers, but cogs in a cohesive musical machine—were in constant motion, carrying their instruments as they walked, ran, and danced around the stage. They had bare feet and wore matching grey suits. At times the lights made the suits change color, from a silvery blue to a light brown.

A full half were drummers, so it didn’t matter that their bare feet were unavailable for the music, since all the drums you’d find on a typical drum kit were divided among the six of them. Between songs they disappeared behind the curtain of glowing strings and reemerged with different drums, often the ones in the drumline of a marching band. They carried big bass drums, single snares, bongos, talking drums, smaller hand drums like djembes, thin sideways drums that looked like the Irish bodhrán, shakers, and the array of toms used by marching bands.

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With so many drummers, every song was a masterclass in rhythm. As they moved around the stage, usually in formation, you could watch specific drummers and hear exactly what they were playing and how it fit into the larger sound, even if it were something as simple as a shaker.

Three of the remaining six were singers, Byrne and two more, one male and the other female. At times they played a small drum or shaker, but were mostly free to dance. Byrne played guitar a few times but spent most of the show without an instrument. When he did play guitar, it was usually for a solo. I learned that the weird sound after the chorus in “Blind” is actually Byrne doing a high bend on the guitar.

The other three players were a guitarist, bassist, and keyboardist with the keyboard hung from his neck. With these three taking care of everything besides percussion, the music had an almost stripped-down feel, despite all the drums. Six Talking Heads songs were from their big-band funk era, with three each from Remain in Light and Speaking In Tongues. Therefore these three musicians handled parts originally played by up to six people: two keyboardists, sometimes two bassists, and two or three guitarists.

The musicians were at once virtuosic and tasteful. Elements of Talking Heads songs were sometimes faithfully rendered, like the unmistakable keyboard solo in “Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place),” and sometimes given a fresh interpretation, like the incredible guitar solo during “The Great Curve,” which as the last song of the first encore seemed the climax of the show. But even though the guitarist was obviously exceptional, she usually only played sparse rhythm parts, saving the big solos for certain moments.

Byrne introduced the bassist as Bobby Wooten—is he a member of the Wooten clan that includes Flecktones Victor Wooten and Future Man? He was the glue, the solid connection between the two melody instruments and the frantic polyrhythmic chorus of drums.

About half of the show were Talking Heads songs, and the other half were a mix of songs from Byrne’s new album American Utopia and a few outliers from his solo career. The Heads songs included big hits, of course, but also many songs the casual radio listener might not know, like “I Zimbra,” “Slippery People,” and “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” both well-suited to the peculiarities of this band.

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Perhaps the catchiest song from American Utopia is “Every Day is a Miracle.” With its bright and expansive chorus, it could have appeared on a later Talking Heads album like True Stories, although its dissimilar music clearly represents a different age and attitude. It got the crowd swaying as much as any of the old classics.

Other American Utopia songs have a more divergent style, such as the grinding electro chorus in “We Dance Like This.” But the lyrics are pure Byrne, with topics ranging from declarations of uninhibited weirdness to abstract social commentary.

I have a much better appreciation for these American Utopia songs after having seen them performed live. Each seemed to tell a story, both lyrically and through the choreography, similar to how the motions of ballet dancers tell wordless stories on the stage.

This was also true for his other solo material. In “I Should Watch TV,” Byrne sang to himself in front of a mirror. In “Dancing Together,” one bongo-playing drummer ran loose in front of the rest of group, which followed at a distance, seeming to chase and chastise him.

Besides these more thematic motions, the choreography was a mostly a mix of marching band, flat-footed ballet, and organized chaos. The arrangement of the players sometimes recalled Talking Heads essentials like the concert film Stop Making Sense or Byrne’s jerky dancing in the music video for “Once in a Lifetime.”

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During “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” they began in two lines that alternately advanced and retreated, all while drenched in red lights. During “Burning Down the House,” they formed a large + that spun around the stage, to later break into other formations. And in many songs, the two backup singers danced with each other in an exaggerated tango.

The venue was perfect—the large and ornate Teatro Metropolitán, a classic theatre in the heart of downtown Mexico City, one block away from the central Alameda park. The street outside was lined with vendors selling bootleg t-shirts, posters, and coffee mugs, in contrast to the tall columns, gold trim, and plush carpets of the interior.

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Immediately after openers Mexican Institute of Sound left the stage, the crew rushed out and took away their gear, leaving the stage bare. Four workers with long dust mops came out and swept the floor clean. Then they brought out a square table and placed it in the exact center of the stage.

A three-sided rack of what looked like a lighting rig was lowered down to just above the stage, hanging at its far edges in a kind of open square. It was about now that I noticed the lack of house music. It was strange to have silence between bands—but it wasn’t silent, of course, with people all around talking, looking for their seats, and buying snacks and milkshakes from vendor girls wearing suits and squeezing through the crowded aisles. No beer, though—for that you had to go downstairs to the bar and get in line.

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But wait—it wasn’t actually silent underneath all the voices and shuffling feet. Some sound was coming out of the speakers, a kind of soft white noise, a faint electronic humming just faint enough to be nonchalant and nearly unnoticeable. But as the minutes passed, it soon changed from a steady hum to almost like crickets. There was no ignoring it now.

The crowd kept talking while the sound grew louder. A crew member brought out a chair and put it behind the table. The stage went dark and a spotlight shone on the table and chair. The house lights stayed on, however, so no one seemed to notice. But they must have noticed the sound, which continued to evolve, first into another constant white noise, then to something like rain. But not real rain—like the crickets it had an electronic, created quality. Eventually it became chirping birds, loud and insistent, but intriguing like the rest. Suddenly the house lights went out. The show had begun.

The rack of hanging strings of light quickly rose above the stage. David Byrne walked alone though the brilliant cords and sat at the table. He picked up a big white object—a human brain, which he alternately cradled and swung about, pondering it and singing to it during “Here,” the atmospheric first song with lyrics about neurons, aliens, and hallucinations.

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The musicians emerged for the second song, got into formation, and the show went on, a spectacle of sound and rhythm, drums and voices, synchronized motions and warm lights.

The show had two encores, both noteworthy. The first began with a song called “Dancing Together,” which Byrne introduced by saying he wrote it for Imelda Marcos, calling her something like a “high society lady.” This was followed by the rapid groove of “The Great Curve,” probably the musical highlight of the night. After this, the players didn’t only bow to the applauding crowd, but also to each other.

The band left the darkened stage and returned shortly for a second encore. They carried no other instruments besides drums. Byrne spoke again, saying that they’d play a song written by a friend with lyrics adapted to Mexico. (Setlist.com tells me it was “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monáe.)

The chant-like song was in Spanish, beginning with repetitions of “Cuarenta y tres” (43), referring to the 43 students who disappeared from the small town Ayotzinapa in 2014, a still-unresolved crime widely believed to have been committed or at least approved by the government.

The chant then became “Diga su nombre, diga su nombre!” (Say his name, say his name!), and individual singers responded by calling out names, obviously those of the missing 43 students.

This was the only overtly political message of the night. In the context of his American Utopia, he reminded the crowd of their very real Mexican dystopia.

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In the same way that this show was more than a concert, David Byrne is more than a musician, but an activist, writer, and interesting character in many respects. As a lifelong cyclist, I greatly appreciate his promotion of urban cycling all around the world. Anyone interested in music would love his book How Music Works. And, of course, Talking Heads are legendary, one of my god bands—if you aren’t familiar with their music, get on YouTube and watch Stop Making Sense right now. Fanatic Heads worshipers like me are bound to enjoy American Utopia, a worthy addition to his legacy, especially if you can catch it live.

Thanks Mr. Byrne, and come back to Mexico soon!

Vive Latino Music Festival, Mexico City, 2018

Last weekend (March 17-18) was the Vive Latino Music Festival in Mexico City. Every spring, international and Mexican bands take the stage at Foro Sol, a massive outdoor venue that hosts the biggest rock shows in Mexico and doubles as a baseball stadium and racetrack.

This year, like most years, it was mostly rock en español with outliers like electronic music and rap, along with some famous foreign groups. The headliners on Saturday were two of Mexico’s biggest bands, Panteon Rococo and Molotov, and on Sunday Queens of the Stone Age and Gorrilaz.

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I went with my wife and some friends on the first day, Saturday. Unlike other years, when we’d see a few bands on side stages and then spend the rest of the night watching the main stage, this year we wandered around catching music on several of the five stages. It was a hell of a lot of fun with a few pleasant surprises.

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The first surprise wasn’t pleasant at first, but turned out to be a good idea. The beer and food vendors (and presumably t-shirt vendors too) accepted no cash. You had to get a wristband and add money to it at a booth. The vendors would scan it with their cell phones so you could pay for your beer or hot dog.

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The problem was that when we entered Foro Sol sometime around 4 PM, there were no more wristbands. I had disturbing visions of spending the whole day with no food or drink. As we walked the grounds outside the huge bleachers of the main stage, I saw many other people trying to buy beers and hearing the same explanation. You need a wristband to buy it. No, I don’t know where the wristbands are.

Thankfully it didn’t take long to find a recharge station that had wristbands. As the night went on, I became a believer. You didn’t have to deal with change or tipping, and at the end getting a refund for the leftover money was fast and easy. I’ll admit that I felt like I was in a Black Mirror episode at times: the cell phone glowing over my hand, light reflecting off the piece of plastic tied to my wrist, and then the new lower number on the screen, counting down to zero. This one had a happy ending, though, a fresh beer every time.

Of course, the obvious reason for the wristband was that the workers wouldn’t be skimming money all weekend, and in that regard I’m sure it was a success.

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After the wristband adventure and getting some food, we watched Pate de Fua first. This Mexican group plays a bouncy mix of jazz, tango, and rock. They’re good, but they were much better when I saw them from about 20 feet away at a much smaller music festival in Metepec near where I live.

Then we went to the main stage and watched a cover band with a symphony orchestra doing famous rock en español as the sun went down. We couldn’t really hear the instruments from the orchestra, but it was nice to sit up in the bleachers with a wide view of the huge stage, where I’ve seen many shows over the years, among them the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Metallica, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and other Vive Latinos.

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After that we headed over to a distant side stage to watch Venezuelan band Los Amigos Invisibles. I’d seen them years ago at the Cumbre Tajin Festival in Veracruz and knew that they put on a funky dance party. We got there before they started playing and the grounds were already packed. We made it as far up as the soundbooth. Unfortunately the volume was too low — in order to appreciate their music it needs to be loud and thumping, at least the bass and drums. Oh well, at least my wife got to hear their hit “Mentiras.”

Leaving Los Amigos Inivisibles, we cut in front of the main stage and were treated to our second surprise — Morrissey. Now, I couldn’t name one Morrissey song, and a band I wanted to see (that we were on our way to see) was happening at the same time. But on the way we stopped for a beer and listened for a while. It sounded good, kind of what you’d expect from a Morrissey concert if you had no idea what to expect, but in a good way: moody music and wailing voices, a big beautiful sound rising up from the stage. I even recognized a song. So, yes Morrissey, if you’re ever on the lineup of another music festival I’m at, I’ll give you my full attention.

No meat was cooked or served during Morrissey’s set, a condition he regularly imposes due to his staunch veganism. In fact, he cancelled his set during the 2013 Vive Latino because he smelled meat from the stage. Now he was back and ready to redeem himself, meat clause in the contract and all.

Here’s the sign outside the chorizo tent explaining that “the sale of products of animal origin will be suspended between 19:00 and 22:00. This is to not affect the participation of some of the artists in the festival:”

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After Morrissey we went back to the Escena Indio stage where we’d seen Pate de Fua earlier. With at least 30 minutes until Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, there was still plenty of space up front. So after a beer recharge (we were wristband experts by now), we went up close to wait out all the pushing and shoving until the show.

Simply put, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds was awesome. It was a high energy, rocking show with tight music and larger-than-life hooks. Out of 15 songs, they played six Oasis songs (“Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” being the biggest) and closed with a sing-along cover of “All You Need is Love.” I can’t claim to be the world’s biggest Oasis fan, although I had their first album on repeat back in the day. I knew none of the new originals. But it didn’t matter — the songs were good enough that you didn’t need to recognize them to enjoy them. We were close enough to see the band clearly, at least when everyone wasn’t holding their cell phones up over their heads blocking the view of everyone behind them. Anyway, this was a minor annoyance compared to all the drunks singing along with songs they didn’t actually know the lyrics to, mumbling out the English words at maximum volume: Blah blah blahblur-WALL!

Mexican ska/rock/funk band Panteon Rococo had already started on the main stage when the last notes of “All You Need is Love” rang across the crowded field. We found seats halfway back in the bleachers and caught the second half of the show.

Panteon Rococo is easily my favorite popular band in Mexico and I’d seen them a few times already, both at music festivals and smaller theaters. They’re fantastic live. “La Dosis Perfecta,” one of their best songs, gets stretched out with a long reggae intro.

Unfortunately, their show suffered from the same problem as Los Amigos Invisibles: not loud enough. Why?

The performance was good but needed to be cranked up one more notch, maybe not to 11 but at least to get the ears vibrating. Because of this, when they finished we wove our way across the bleachers to get closer for Molotov, a super popular Mexican rap/punk/etc. band that I’d never yet seen in concert, a glaring omission in my Mexican live music experience.

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I’ll give it to you straight — we got a little bored during Molotov. Yes, we got to hear their classic songs that mix Spanish and English, songs I play on guitar with Mexican friends at parties, like “Frijolero” and “Gimme the Power.” They played a cover of the Misfits song “I Turned into a Martian,” translated to Spanish, so it was “me convierte en marciano.” The recorded version is a departure from the original, but live it was sufficiently fast and rowdy to surely earn Danzig’s grudging approval. The stage lit up with the colors of the Mexican flag during “Frijolero:”

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But maybe, just maybe, punk rock isn’t made to be heard in a huge outdoor arena with 80,000 other fans. I’m sure it was exciting on the floor up front, but from high in the bleachers, we just weren’t feeling it.

So it was back to the nearby Escena Indio stage to be surprised again. It was well after midnight and no band was playing yet. We walked right up to the stage, where a few people were lingering.

Suddenly the lights shone bright and the speakers blared loud with frantic techno sounds that weren’t quite dance music, more like organized noise and craziness. But it sounded good. The members switched instruments, left the stage and returned. For a while there were only four of them, one on drums (which sounded nothing like drums, but triggered programmed effects) and the other three on keyboards, sometimes picking up a bass or guitar.

This was Titán, a Mexican electronic group formed all the way back in 1992 that, coincidentally, includes a former member of Molotov. I’d never heard of them before and I won’t miss them again. The field was totally full by the end, with stoners bobbing heads, drunks stumbling, and couples fighting.

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So, another year, another Vive Latino. Even though the two bands I was most excited to see, Panteon Rococo and Los Amigos Invisibles, were way too quiet, other shows were unexpectedly fun. For me, the highlight and biggest surprise was Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, the only full show we saw, and from up close too. There were more surprises with Morrissey sounding excellent and the final head-trip of Titán. Good times had by all, I’m sure.

Next up in Mexico City in April: David Byrne and then LCD Soundsystem. See you there?

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