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Mexican music party at the Hollywood Bowl turns L.A. into one giant border town

September 20, 2010 |  4:48 pm

A few  years ago, the Tijuana-born Mexican American writer Luis Alberto Urrea astutely observed that "Every American city is now a border town."

It follows that, thanks to endless waves of Mexican immigration, every U.S. pop music concert is, increasingly, a Mexican music concert. Band by band, musician by musician, Mexican, Central and South American groups are transforming the sound of U.S. pop, both by growing the billingual fan base here and by infusing ranchera, mariachi, son jarocho, cumbia, mambo, salsa and dozens of regional folk strains into the trans-border aural mezcla. It's no coincidence that, from Coachella to Bonnaroo, some of the most dynamically experimental acts of the year's festival season were Latin American or Latino.

For poly-sonically perverse L.A. audiences, like the one that packed the Hollywood Bowl for Sunday night's ¡Viva Mexico! concert, Mexican-hyphenated music is not a new discovery, of course. It's a distinct feature of the ethnically burnished cultural landscape that's been here all along.

Headlined by genre-demolishing hometown favorites, Ozomatli, celebrating its quinceañera, and cleverly fashioned by Bowl senior programmer Johanna Rees, Sunday's three-hour show traced a thoughtfully meandering line from traditional folkloric and regional music, peformed by the all-female Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, to the blurred-boundary fusions of Ozo; chilango techno magus Camilo Lara (a.k.a. Mexican Institute of Sound); and Calexico, the Tucson-based ensemble that might be considered the Southwest's answer to the E Street Band, with a passionate respect for roots-revisionism on par with Bruce Springsteen and comrades. 

Following Mariachi Reyna's impeccably played, beautifully sung set, Lara cranked up the tempo to a throbbing Mexico City pogo-punk intensity. Backed by a drummer and DJ, and wearing a T-shirt that read "Yo Digo Baila, Tu Dices Dance," Lara rapped in three idioms (Spanglish included) while throwing down startlingly fresh break-beats and samples that required no translation (Super Mario Bros., "Hey Mickey," "Macarena").

Smoothly shifting from the hard, polished musical surfaces of the cosmopolitan Mexican capital to the wind-blown harmonies and lyrical mirages of the desert frontier, the show moved on to Calexico's excellent eight-song set. Deploying mariachi horns, Latin dance grooves, hauntingly ethereal guitar and keening steel-pedal solos, Calexico makes the case that Spanish-language music belongs to the American grain as much as blues or bluegrass, gospel or Yiddish folk tunes.

With the Bowl's vastness as its sonic canvas, Calexico sculpted monumental fok-rock on a scale as panoramic as a John Ford western; indeed, several of its tunes, such as the brass-powered "Minas de Cobre," could double as soundtracks for 1940s Hollywood horse operas. From a cover of Love's '60s pop classic "Alone Again Or" to its rousing finale, the Carlos Fuentes-inspired "Crystal Frontier," Calexico showed how easily musical checkpoints can be crossed and re-crossed by those toting wit, dexterity and a reverence for minor-key blues in their rucksacks.

For sheer theatricality, as might be expected, Ozomatli's show-concluding set exceeded expectations. Even by the over-the-top standards of these indefatigably upbeat artists, Sunday's performance will be hard to match. Ozo supplemented its funk-punk-hip-hop-reggae project with a Sinaloan-style banda backup band, a troupe of folkloric dancers and trampoline-bouncing chicken-suited acrobats (why no coyotes?) on "La Gallina." Did I mention Cheech Marin, who briefly turned up as a sort of comic-relief tour guide, belting out a tongue-in-cheek ode to Mexican Americans?

Even without the tie-in to the 200th anniversary of the Mexico's War of Independence, and the 100th of its bloody revolution, this night could be considered a semi-historic occasion: Mexican music of many colors, as organic to the setting as the Bowl's California flag.

-- Reed Johnson