My first Y La Bamba experience went down at Muddy Waters some two years back. I had gone to see local-gone-global boys Gardens & Villa play a supporting slot, and I recall walking in oblivious to what else the night would offer. By the time I left, I was smitten. Portland’s Y La Bamba are a curious mix; they could classify as folk and have an accordion at the ready, but they also flirt with the building, heavy percussion of acts like Arcade Fire and, on Thursday, churned out nearly half a set en español. They also just might be some of the best harmonizers I’ve ever heard.
During their stop in S.B., the six-piece spent the majority of their set swapping instruments; drummers would become tambourine wielders, guitarists would become drummers, and everyone got a turn at the mike. And at the helm of it all stood Luz Elena Mendoza, no doubt one of music’s most unsung talents. Vocally, Mendoza is an odd amalgamation of warm, high-reaching yelps and haunting, low-register croons that convey pain, loss, and hurt in a way that has little to do with the lyrics she’s singing. Alone at the mike, she’s captivating, but together with a full band-cum-choir, the result is downright breathtaking. Thursday found them working through a large supply of new tracks (a reworked “Fasting in San Francisco” was one of the few oldies we were dealt) and dabbling in a whole lot of Spanish-language stompers, each of which gave me high hopes for where this band is going next.