At the Santa Barbara Bowl, Saturday, September 16.
Reviewed by Hannah Tennant-Moore
When I expressed less-than-maximum interest in spending my night grooving to Tejano ballads, my editor jokingly accused me of being racist. I laughed, but as it turned out, race played a bigger role in my night than I’d expected. Though my enjoyment of the king of contemporary mariachi was certainly not colored by racism, it was partly hampered by the cultural blockade separating me from most other concertgoers. As one of a handful of white faces with a limited understanding of Spanish, I experienced the show as more of a spectacle than a concert.
Still, it was a stellar spectacle. Backed by 12 mariachi players and two singers, a conventional rock band, and someone solely responsible for dispersing the hand towels Pepe Aguilar used to wipe his brow before tossing them to the ecstatic crowd, the man clearly knew how to put on a show. The set — which included a giant skeletal face representing the upcoming Day of the Dead celebrations — was the perfect example of Aguilar’s comfort and popularity in both worlds of traditional mariachi and conventional American rock, in that it was the work of designer Mark Fisher, who has worked with every big name from U2 to the Rolling Stones.
For the first half of the show, Aguilar focused mostly on the traditional Mexican ballads that comprise his latest album. The odes to love and beautiful women only magnified his heartthrob status, which was clear from the abundance of girlish shrieks that followed the many kisses he blew the audience. And judging from the barrage of random clothing items tossed on stage — besides the bra draping the keyboard, there were shawls, jackets, and scarves — there must have been a lot of women going home cold that night. Given that the Pepe worship wasn’t confined to females — at least one macho-looking guy proudly waved Aguilar’s sweatrag around like a trophy — my date wondered if he should express his own appreciation by chucking his shoe.
After I returned from the bathroom halfway through the show, the woman sitting next to me said, “We thought you left. Do you really like this kind of music?” Though she and her husband had driven all the way from Orange County to see the show, she apparently guessed that my musical ear might not be tuned to Tejano nuances. “He’s so passionate. It’s all about the words,” she explained. When I told her I understood a good bit of it, she replied, “But the passion gets lost in translation.”
I tried harder after that to imagine how the music would have sounded if El Voz’s love ballads had been the soundtrack to my first date or his carpe diem philosophy had helped me through a rough time. And indeed by the end, I was clapping along, “ay-yay-yaying,” and shouting encore (in a Mexican accent) as loudly as the next guy. The show closed with more upbeat Mexican classics, including “Un Puño de Tierra,” which Aguilar dedicated to all those who “feel superior and think they will never die.” In the end, he said, our differences don’t matter; we all meet the same fate: becoming “a pinch of dirt.” Aside from offering me a concrete understanding of this message, the concert was probably the closest I’ll ever come to seeing Elvis live.