Past the crowds from the Metro, sidewalk flanked with red-canopied tlanguis selling water, refrescos and everything else imaginable from under blocks of ice and a police phalanx of riot shields, this is a pretty standard big music festival on a spring day in North America: stingy corporate sponsor (six-dollar beers? In Mexico?), check; no free water, check (it’s the hottest spring for years in a mountain city where summer means cool rain and the temperature has never once reached 92 degrees) slack areas behind the backstage the envy of anyone not inured by exposure or age to the charade of stardom and rock and roll dream, check.
Some things are different—you can take your drink anywhere but nobody is obviously drunk, the crowd moves gently, people laugh easier, are a little less cool, no one is lost. Shirtless men lie un-demeaned on the dirty Astroturf. There is a mezcal tent. And everybody is speaking Spanish.
Local media complains VL’s twelfth iteration still headlines Anglophone bands: nothing’s shocking about Jane’s Addiction (Friday), except how hollow something that once seemed so vital is now, and that twenty years after Ritual de Lo Habitualspry/creepy-dapper Perry Farrell—just off the first international Lollapalooza in Santiago, Chile—butchers his very few words of Spanish. Sunday, steadfast anti-star Matt Berninger of The National uncannily resembles a slim Seattle mayor Mike McGinn careening off the end of a three-day bender, his songs the public face of a pain kept steadfastly private, or in other words, exactly like art.
The prevailing tendency of Latin song runs to the hyper-Romantic and tragic: bands like The Doors and Metallica are adored here—out of all proportion. The flavors and sadness (and exhilaration) of Britain, and Mississippi and America are a different and usually a more-restrained thing, of which The National—playing to more dedicated fans than any mainstage act (save Saturday’s headliner Caifanes)—are a sublime example.
A decade ago, Latin American rock was largely dominated by US or British sound-alike bands, a painful tendency still discernable in the sprawling, Killers-like torch rock of Babasonicos (Argentina) or Chilean Ana Tijoux channeling M.I.A.. Ska is so tenacious in this country it isn’t even categorized by genre: a half-dozen bands represent, from as far as Japan. More original is Mala Rodríguez, an Andalusian Patti Smith rapping in S&M-gauge leather hot-pants, or sassy Colombian freestylers Bomba Estereo. Locally, La Hora de La Hora and Torreblanca squeezebox out smart-ass gypsy and sincere recital-rock, respectively; the gamine Mexi-Franco-pop of Andreas Balency and Madame Recamier make you feel like Maximilian was never overthrown, and rockabilly sensation Rebel Cats do that kind of thing as well as can possibly be done.
Buenos Aires veteran Charly Garcia’s salad of mid-Atlantic influences, after two generations, is a sound itself that’s become authentically Argentinean, while newer guitar bands cop updated (yet parallel) styles of their own: Rey Pila; Atto & the Majestics, and notably Fobia, who played before Farrell and company on Friday.
Longest-awaited is Caifanes, the Cure sound-alike that was the first real Mexican rock band, reunited for the first time in fifteen years. Their opus frankly feels inauthentic, but their place of pride and emotional grip on even the most refined aesthete is undeniable. Their fiercest fans stake out floor space through the acoustic-y Los Bunkers (Chile), denying them the warmer reception they deserve. In the media tent, as I nurse the huge pink bottle of pulque (sacred beverage of the Aztecs fermented from sap of the maguey cactus, the capitol’s popular beverage before postwar beer companies spread the rumor it has shit in it. It spoils despite bottling or refrigeration in 24 hours and so cannot be corporatized.) that I smuggled in defiance of the beer sponsor, an audio tech comes over from a standoffish TeleAzteca crew to remark that sister festival Vive Banda, last month, was la chingada—singing, dancing, a better time.
Banda is the easily recognizable colloquial popular music of Mexico: fierce horns over accordion Czech polka that stomped down from the Pedernales a hundred years ago. Songs of lost love and destitution, bands charro-suited in the videos—pools, bikinis, fat belt buckles, the braggadocio of naco life. My hip Mexican friends mock me for liking banda, but the interesting bands here are those entirely un-imitative of British or American forms and style. Pure adoration greets the lovesick lullabies of the Tecate, Baja California cantanteCarla Morrison, fronting a spare band of tom-tom, bass, flute, trombone and piano on one of the smaller stages. Easy comparisons are Cat Power and Martha Wainwright, but her work feels native and original, with deeper roots—Marlene Dietrich, Elvis at his quiet best.
The most important band here (neighbors to Morrison, from Tijuana) is Nortec Collective: principals Bostich and Fussilble stand center stage, outfitted head-to-toe in black, with cowboy hats and black-and-gold metal cyborg masks, fiddling with iPads while out front tuba, trumpet and accordion wrap a traditional Norteño party jam around the pair’s electrifying techno-spazz. Their show, the best I’ve seen in years, calls to mind Radiohead’s performances after Kid A (though far more boisterous), and with only occasional vocals and samples, they generate an eloquent tension, characteristically Mexicano—warmth and joy strain against a darkness of machismo and murder and celebrate from within that pain— as The National’s angst is particularly Midwestern and American. There is a third country, now, along la frontera that carries the curse of two nations: Nortec are its prophets. They will make you dance.
Grant Cogswell lives in Mexico City and blogs at underthevolcanobooks.wordpress.com. Stephen Gyllenhaal’s film about his time in Seattle politics, Grassroots, comes out this fall.