Viva El Voz

Pepe Aguilar

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.

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