It was a dark and stormy night – really! It was thundering and flashing lightning and raining buckets when I pulled up in front of the venue to unload my gear. The bartender was squeegeeing water out the front door and the band was checking to make sure none of their equipment or cables were wet. Thunderstorms are notorious in the summer in the dozen or so small towns that line the north side of Lake Chapala, south of Guadalajara. They were extra ferocious Wednesday night and they started up at 9 pm, exactly when the band Sopa de Piedra (Stone Soup) went on stage at the Blue Moon in Ajijic, Mexico
Ajijic is one of the towns on the north shore of Lake Chapala that back up against the Sierra de San Juan Cosala Mountains. The storms usually roll in from the south, come across the lake and then over Ajijic, Chapala, San Antonio Tlayacapan and the county seat, Chapala. They slow as they run up against the mountain and often linger, lighting up the skies and terrifying dogs with rolling thunder and literally inches of water in an hour or so. Sometimes they spool down the mountain from the opposite direction, drop their watery load on the lakeside towns and then head across the water.
Whichever happens, music fans living near the lake have learned to maneuver around them, usually by waiting to venture out until they have passed, which can mean missing a band’s first set. I decided not to wait, put on my raincoat, grabbed my umbrella and cameras and plowed through the rain to the Blue Moon, wipers beating their own 4/4 rhythm. I was really glad I did.
The Blue Moon is at the east end of the town of Ajijic and is a fixture in the local music scene. Proprietor-owner Bob Catlett has brought great music to the local scene for eight years and can usually be found at the bar, greeting customers and listening. Earlier tonight he was helping the band get their gear inside before the rains hit. Known for his generosity to the bands nights at the Blue Moon are great for artists and customers alike.
Part of that generosity is due to the fact that the Blue Moon is actually a profitable furniture factory that can support the venue. The back half of the building turns out high-end furniture and front half turns out music, margaritas and great food. Catlett has a long history in the furniture business and his factory/venue makes furniture for export to hotels around the world. Just think, if you travel much, you may have sat in a leather hotel chair made behind a music venue in central Mexico.
The band in the front half of the factory/venue, Sopa de Piedra, is a local Mexican group led by trumpet player and singer Ernie McCloud, the progeny of a Canadian father and Mexican mother – hence his not-very-Mexican name and fluent English with a slight accent. The band is loved by the local Mexican dance community and it pleases them by specializing in its versions of highly danceable Mexican songs, seamlessly fusing Latin beats with rock, Reggae, Cumbia, Salsa, Ska. They performed mostly in Spanish Wednesday night but slipped in a few English songs.
Sopa de Piedra is built around Ernie’s trumpet and vocals and the singing and playing of lead guitarist Chris, (except for Ernie the band lists only first names). This worked beautifully, given Ernie’s powerful vocals and Chris’s flawless guitar work. It was even more impressive that Ernie played his horn with one hand – the other one was in a soft cast from a recent injury. He made it work by supporting the horn with his injured hand while he held it and pushed the keys using his good hand. He told me before the set that he was not sure how it was going to work, but he figured it out on the fly on stage. Picking up the trumpet was a little awkward for Ernie and he fumbled a couple times but never missed the beat.
Despite the deluge outside, the first set drew a decent and pretty jazzed audience and even a couple of dancing couples. The tables were filled with both local Mexicans and gringo expats who follow the band and love the Blue Moon. The band knew people in the audience so fan interaction was no problem and requests were the rule rather than the exception. Ernie told me later that they had so many requests that they threw out the setlist.
The Blue Moon has professional lighting and sound, but no stage. The band sets up at one end of the hall, kind of in the corner, but given the band’s size, they were pretty well spread out. Besides Ernie and Chris, there was a rhythm section comprised of Gogi on drums, Travis on Congas and percussion, and Chuy on bass. Rober’s trombone joined Ernie’s trumpet for a solid horn section, and Tito played rhythm guitar. These seven people kept the first wave of wet fans moving nonstop, sometimes dancing inches from the mic stands and were ready to go as the second wave came pouring in – dry – for set 2.
Sopa de Piedra was tight, each musician a skilled and practiced, effortlessly fielding requests as they came, but adding the band’s unique mixture of American and Latin and tropical music forms. Ernie told during the break between the sets that they play the covers because that is what the local audience wants, but will add original music to their repertoire when they play larger venues in places like Guadalajara. But for a dark and stormy night and a one-handed trumpet player, their fusion covers hit the sweet spot for the crowd Wednesday night.
Patrick O’Heffernan, host Musica Sin Fronteras
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