Whew…We kicked off our 2010-11 season this week with two packed-house performances from wildly different waves of the music spectrum, vaunting Thursday night from John Cale, perhaps the most experimental rocker in the world (be sad if you missed his twisted take on Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel”), to Saturday night’s world music fiesta from the superbly talented musicians of Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano.
Both performances also featured guest appearances from artists who have been influenced by the headliners.
For John Cale that was Ben Gibbard and Mark Lanegan. Indie/alt-rock fans and KCRW-types need no introduction to these two amazing musicians, but just in case, Gibbard is the Death Cab for Cutie singer (whose “Plans” vocals are the soundtrack to one of my past breakups) and Lanegan is the much-coveted singer/songwriter and Screaming Trees founder who’s collaborated with everyone from Queens of the Stone Age, Belle & Sebastian’s Isobell Campbell, UNKLE, and one John Cale.
Getting these two on stage with Cale was surprisingly easy. They are both huge fans of the pop icon who expressed interest in simply attending the show and then immediately jumped at the chance to join the show when Cale extended the offer. And, they were incredibly gracious and allowed us to tout their guest appearances leading up to the night. It all came together less than a week before the actual performance and I think it really made for a special UCLA Live evening.
Going over the set list with Cale’s manager before the show I was intrigued at the possibility of an encore featuring all three of these artists. Frankly I was wondering how that might work out. When it comes to vocal range and style things don’t get much different than Ben’s sweet purity and Mark’s dark, loin-stirring bass (oh yeah I went there, listen to this song and see if you don’t agree).
But Cale’s “Chorale,” which closed out the show, featuring the trio in periodic a capella was simply one of the most beautiful and spontaneous music moments I’ve ever heard. I was backstage when the song started and had to run down into the house to get the full effect.
As for Mariachi Los Camperos, the group’s guest stars were Los Angeles-native songstress Perla Batalla and also Angeles Ochoa, one of the most beloved voices in Mexican music, who joined Los Camperos in their second set decked out in traditional mariachi garb and with her amazing pipes on full display. Backstage, Angeles celebrated her birthday with cake and her friends and family who were in the house.
Speaking of backstage…Nati Cano is just as mischievous, ingratiating and full of mirth there as he is in front of the crowd. And, the exceptionally sharp 77-year-old doesn’t miss a beat when talking about his beloved mariachi music.
Friday morning, Los Camperos put on a special educational show for 1,000 Los Angeles middle and high-school aged students as part of our community program Design for Sharing.
Backstage after that event, I told Mr. Cano how much I enjoyed the music. I think I said the word “amazing.”
He looked me in the eye and said “Why? Why did you enjoy it? Why did you think it was amazing?”
It kind of took me aback and challenged me to verbalize what I meant. I told him how impressed I was at the group’s musicality, the sheer vocal prowess and incredible harmonies of all the singers and their stunning instrumentality.
“Ohh, he said,” with a smile and a little glint in his eye. “You are new to mariachi….we are going to spoil you.”
Another staffer told me she had a similar encounter with the mariachi maestro. He told her that he always asks people “why”—when they offer compliments, inspiring them to really think about their experience with the music.
In honor of Nati and all those experiences he has instigated over the course of a half-century, Perla Batalla, with her effortless charm, warmed up Saturday night’s audience with groovy, jazzy takes on several traditional Mexican and Latin classics. She told stories of growing up in Los Angeles listening to Los Camperos’ mariachi music with her record-store owning parents–what she called “the soundtrack of her childhood.”
“Let’s show Nati how much we love him,” she said, encouraging the audience to sing along to a rousing Batalla-style version of “Guantanamera.”
And we did…oops I mean “they did.” (Aww what the heck, I admit it, I sang along too.)
One cool thing about both of these performances for us was being able to have UCLA student musicians as part of the events.
John Cale’s appearance here was the West Coast debut performance of his seminal album Paris 1919, which he recorded in Los Angeles in 1972 backed by some USC music students. Weirdly, somehow, all those years ago, the record label credited the performers on the album as the UCLA Orchestra.
Obviously, the label execs were clueless as to the extremely important distinction between Trojan and Bruin. 🙂
Well, we were able to officially write UCLA back into the story of one of Cale’s most critically acclaimed solo albums last Thursday, by having members of the UCLA Philharmonia on stage with the legendary artist.
Most, if not all, of the students on stage that night were not even a glint in their parents’ respective eyes when that album was recorded, but they did an incredible job. Watching them from backstage I was very impressed, especially during a truly lovely arrangement of Cale’s “Secret Corrida,” which does not appear on the Paris 1919 album, but that Cale has been including on this tour with this arrangement because of the access to the orchestra.
I was watching the concertmaster and was struck at how truly fine these musicians are. They are already professionals in their own right with many years of concert halls in their future. On a personal note, 20 years ago, I was going to college on an orchestral-music scholarship. I know how much it would have meant to me to be part of an evening like that. I think (I hope) it’s something they will remember for their entire careers. I think we should all take advantage of their performance schedule this year.
And on Saturday night, we had the opportunity to involve more student musicians.
Did you know UCLA has its very own mariachi group?
Well, we do! They’re called Mariachi de UCLAtlan and they’re GOOD. (But, perhaps that’s to be expected, after all their teacher/director is Jesus “Chuy” Guzman, who is also the musical director/violin player/vocalist in Mariachi Los Camperos.)
We were thrilled they were willing and able to join the party Saturday night, but I think they might have even been more thrilled to be included.
And it became clear very early that the audience definitely was thrilled to have them there.
At first the, UCLA Mariachi group delighted the crowd playing in front of Royce, and while it was quite a beautiful sight to see them spread out making music in the quad, with the glow of Powell Library’s clock tower beaming down like a halo, we very quickly discovered the crowd was so delighted to listen to them that people weren’t moving inside for the actual show.
We moved the UCLAtlan onto the patio outside the West Lobby to lure patrons into the house. I couldn’t help but smile as the crowd sang along. And, even though they were about to go inside and hear MORE mariachi music from some of the world’s best purveyors of the art form, perhaps hear even some of the same traditional songs, still, after every song the student group played, the crowd cried “Otra! Otra!” We had to pull the performers away to get the crowd inside the hall.
Once inside, though, Los Camperos did not disappoint. I think we were all a little spoiled that night!
It was a great way to start the season. It’s true, as an organization, UCLA Live is in the throes of transition. It’s definitely a transitional year for us as we move forward with this season as simultaneously the University searches for a new director to lead UCLA Live.
Transition brings change and challenge, but it also brings hopefulness and opportunity. Change isn’t bad. It is the thing that inspires growth and thought and we are looking forward. We’re proud of the role we play in the cultural life of UCLA and the greater Los Angeles community and are committed to the role we know we will continue to play.
We think, and we know UCLA leadership shares this belief, that performing art is important to the flavor, language and experience of life in any city, but especially here in this enviable environment (meaning both the UCLA campus and Los Angeles at large), where we are so demographically diverse, so inspirationally creative and so open to new experiences.
And honestly, if these first two performances are any indication of the vibe that our performers, donors, subscribers, patrons, UCLA students, faculty, staff are going to bring to Royce Hall this year, then we are all in for a treat.
I know it’s my job to be perky and excited about our performers and our program, but believe me, it’s also my sincere pleasure.
So, I say thank you to everyone involved in these first two performances and thank you to everyone who turned out and danced, sang along and marveled at the incredible and varied musicianship in Royce Hall this weekend.
There’s definitely more to come.