Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!,
The Music Friday Live team took a 4-day break to Mexico this past weekend. Our trips south of the border are often to Guadalajara, a city much like Los Angeles that is Mexico’s music venue capital. It is also the home of FIMPRO the Latin American Music Convention which we attend every year. This time we went about an hour south of Guadalajara to Ajijic, a small town on Lake Chapala to check out the music scene. And we were so glad we did.
Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest lake. At 50 miles long and 425 square miles of surface, it is a bit larger than California’s Lake Tahoe. Along the northern shore is a string of villages anchored by the country seat, Chapala. One of those villages, Ajijic – a word from the ancient Aztec language of Nahuatl – has been an ex-pat settlement for Americans, Canadians, and some Europeans for 50 years. Of course, the gringo settlers brought music and the desire for more of it with them and, of course, the local Mexican music community knew an opportunity for fun and profit when they saw one and they responded in spades. The result is a proliferation of music venues ranging from hard rock bars to high-class Broadway-type stages hosting Mexican rock and cover bands, Mexican touring groups, imported artists from the US, and Latin American touring bands picking up gigs after playing in big clubs in Guadalajara or Mexico City.
Some of the touring bands are all Mexican and their performances are aimed at the Spanish-speaking population; some are local players performing with touring players in English and Spanish for the ex-pat population. And some are older American rockers who have “retired” to Mexico, put together bands with local Mexicans and other older rockers and blow everyone away with high powered rock covers, original songs, dance-until-you drop nights, and performances that could draw a full house in Hollywood. We were lucky enough to catch one of these fusion performances Sunday night by Thomas Banks and the No Borders Band at the El Barco Bar.
Banks is an old blues singer with a voice that reminds you of James Brown. Although in his sixties, Banks has James Brown level energy whether he was doing 70’s covers, Michael Jackson songs, or his own music. Sitting next to the spacious stage at El Barco, sipping tequila, I felt like I was in the Mexican equivalent of Muscle Shoals Studio. Banks even gave the famous Alabama studio (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year) a shout out, recognizing that, while he had never recorded there, it was in the music’s blood. The audience knew it too – half the house was on its feet and the more they danced the more he sang — a virtuous circle.
But besides evoking James Brown and the Swampers sound from Alabama, another interesting thing that was happening with Banks on the El Barco stage, something that really separated the No Borders Band from the many very good Mexican cover bands keeping the Ajijic and Chapala retirement community dancing. Standing in front of a good-sized pedal board on stage right was jazz/rock guitarist Juan Castañón Acasia who some say is the best guitarist in Mexico an one of the best in the Americas
I had seen Acasia at another venue last year and even posted a video of him because I was so impressed. Currently, I stream his album Acasia on Spotify as part of my playlist so I was familiar with his music. A resident of Monterrey, Mexico, Acasia ’s fingers move with a precision that I have rarely seen outside of classical guitar concerts. He can do what he does with that precision in rock or jazz as well as classical guitar – a renaissance man and a triple threat. So it was a double treat to see him play good solid hard rock with Banks and the band at El Barco in Ajijic.
Of course, I said hola during the break and he remembered our meeting a year ago. I was hoping he could play some of his original jazz music, but that would take a different band and likely a different audience. Regardless, when he got back onstage, the sparks flew off of every fret and I was so thankful that I could visit a small town in Mexico and hear hot rock and an epic guitar on a warm Sunday night. What could be better?
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