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Pop music review: Mariachi El Bronx at the Natural History Museum

January 8, 2012 |  8:04 pm

The Bronx's acoustic alter ego fuses its punky themes of struggle and misanthropy with traditional Mexican mariachi music. The result is startlingly natural.

The members of Mariachi El Bronx first joined forces in the Bronx -- not the northernmost borough of New York City but one of L.A.'s crankiest punk bands. So it came as no surprise Friday night to find that, like so many punk gigs, Mariachi El Bronx's concert at the L.A. County Natural History Museum took the form of a provocation. Here before the elaborate dioramas of the North American Mammal Hall was a group of admitted cultural tourists daring its audience to view it as more than a curious museum piece. Ask the longhaired slam dancer in the Budweiser cap and he'd probably agree: The band pulled it off.

Despite the complicated overtones, Mariachi El Bronx's creative project is as straightforward as its name. This eight-man outfit -- clad in matching charro suits and wielding acoustic instruments such as the vihuela and the guitarrón -- transfers themes of struggle and misanthropy from the Bronx's febrile hard rock to the traditional sounds of Mexican mariachi music. The result feels startlingly natural; on the pair of self-titled albums it's released since 2009, Mariachi El Bronx inhabits its adopted setting as though it were the unavoidable fate of any Southern California band.

Friday's show opened the season of the Natural History Museum's First Fridays series, in which musical performances are presented alongside guided tours and science-related talks. (Before Mariachi El Bronx played, Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society discussed the human brain's belief-making machinery.) Yet the concert also served as something of a bookend to an especially busy period for Mariachi El Bronx. Last year, the band toured arenas with Foo Fighters and appeared on "Conan" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno"; 2011 might well be remembered as the point when the Bronx, which continues to perform, was outpaced by its own alter ego.

Matt Caughthran, the act's cheerfully pugnacious frontman, acknowledged his and his bandmates' unlikely ascent, saying they never expected to find themselves playing next to the biggest sea lion he'd ever seen. (Caughthran's actual language can't be quoted in a family newspaper.) "Our goal tonight is to pass out amongst the buffalo," he said later, adding slyly, "It wouldn't be the first time."

In fact, Mariachi El Bronx's energy stayed high through its hour-long set; it never gave any indication of an impending collapse, even during "Matador," a sympathetic ballad Caughthran sent out Friday "to the dying breeds." Energy, of course, is the lingua franca of all punk bands, no matter their respective stylistic quirks. Yet Mariachi El Bronx wasn't simply animated at the museum; it coupled that with a precision that reflected the group's extensive road work. Vincent Hidalgo on guitarrón and Jorma Vik on drums were particularly nimble, driving the music's assiduous syncopations while Joby J. Ford unspooled florid lead lines on guitar and accordion. (Mariachi El Bronx also includes a violinist and two trumpet players, each of whom sliced through the Mammal Hall's unkind acoustics.)

Near the end of the gig, Caughthran introduced a cut from the first Mariachi El Bronx album, "Silver or Lead," as "a song about the similarities between religion and drug abuse." (He dedicated it to Pablo Escobar and Jesus Christ.) The comparison was clearly designed as another incitement in a performance fueled by a kind of thoughtful confrontation. But if Caughthran had ruffled any feathers, the crowd didn't show it. By then he'd earned the use of a bully pulpit, and the band's listeners were happy doing what listeners do.


Review: Lana del Rey at the Troubadour

Review: Los Van Van at the Conga Room

Live: Calle 13 shows off a large Latin American tent 

 -- Mikael Wood

Photo: Mariachi El Bronx performs during First Friday at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times