Notes From the Revolucion
There isn't a more fitting stop on the Watcha Tour than Coors Amphitheater, a gargantuan outdoor shed near Chula Vista, just three miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The stink of the separatist politics of Pete Wilson, Harold Ezell and Gloria Matta Tuchman lingers strongly down here, and—intentionally or not—Watcha (Spanglish for "watch it" or "look out") has arrived to blow some of it away. A two-week traveling road show of 13 rock en espaol bands, Watcha has been mislabeled a Spanish-language Warped Tour (it's put on by the same people). In fact, it fortunately lacks Warped's sideshow distractions—no vert ramps; "extreme" BMX-ers; or scowling, pissed-for-no-good-reason white boys here, thanks. Instead, Watcha's greater goal is to make a musical impact—subtler than Warped's and more political.
The Aug. 13 bill is a seamless mix of hard-fast-loud Latin punk, hip-hop, ska, rap rock, and good ol' rocanrol. Modern Latin music with real passion—none of that soulless, made-safe-for-suburban-gringo-housewives Ricky Martin crap (if Martin dared to show up at Watcha, he'd probably get shoved into the slam pit and have the vida loca stomped out of him). The T-shirts peppering the sea of mostly brown-skinned bodies—many who've come from nearby Tijuana—tell that story: Rage Against the Machine, Misfits, MxPx, Black Sabbath, KMFDM, Cannibal Corpse, Suicidal Tendencies, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks. Several people are wearing Che Guevara on their chests; one kid is in a Zapata shirt—and Zapata's clutching a rifle. Fuck the Clash; this is real revolucin rock.
Some bands on Watcha sound truly groundbreaking, others less so—a mishmash, like any other music fest—but all of it sounds like rock & roll futura, if only because, if demographic stats are correct (a 60 percent Latino majority in OC in another 30 years), it is the future.
First up is LA's Los Villains, featuring the sons of Los Lobos; they sound like your basic OC punksters, except for the Spanish lyrics their singer spews at such a white-hot speed you can see his forehead veins pop up. Next, he grabs a squeeze box (not your normal punk-rock tool; they also have a conga player in the band) and starts scrunching it up with the same kind of zeal that Pete Townshend used to splinter his guitars. "This goes out to our neighbors right over there in Mother Mexico!" Los Villains' singer exclaims in English, and everyone goes nuts. Their next tune, "La Pistola," sounds like an Offspring song. Having fabulously failed high school Spanish and not being able to speak much more of it than "Macho Combo Burrito," we don't have a clue what his lyrics mean, but we really don't care—we can't understand what Dexter Holland is singing all the time, either.
The next two bands, the reggae/ska-leaning Orixa and East LA thrashers Union 13, are equally a pair of blistering, incendiary forces, whose sets are punctuated by their respective choices of protest cover songs: Orixa tackle Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," while Union 13 do an exuberant, sweat-soaked punk en espaol take on Rancid's "Roots Radicals."
Several bands flash variations of American rap rock, but the mesmerizing, energetic Latin Frozz are Watcha's only pure hip-hop act:five black men ("Latinos Africanos," they call themselves) who throw down rhymes in Spanish, punctuated with back flips and shout-outs for peace and unity. They smoke.
To Anglo ears, most of the bands on the lineup sound very familiar, and you can't avoid comparing them to their English-lingo counterparts: Bersuit, with their hammy antics, are the Latin Barenaked Ladies; LA's Viva Malpache, a zany, salsa-ska party band, are the Latin Reel Big Fish; Los Mocosos remind you of Ozomatli, but without the natural groove; Illya Kuryaki's jam-laden workouts turn them into the Dave Matthews Band; Puya are the Latin Limp Bizkit, but with a well-placed anger that feels like they have an honest, rebellious purpose (during their set, a U.S. flag gets hurled around the crowd like a dipstick-streaked oil rag).
Still, you also can't avoid wondering if something's being lost in the non-translation: If any of these bands were singing in English, would they suck like so much Third Eye Blind? It's hard to tell—the most obvious case of corporate rock en espaol would be Menudo, who weren't rock at all, of course.
You could go either way with the Chris Perez Band, who, during their Watcha set, crank out both English and Spanish arena rock that's similar to Pearl Jam, or even John Mellencamp, which—who knows?—could be part of their carefully planned way of crossing over to English-speaking audiences. They are easily the band that comes closest to American-sounding rock. Maybe that's why a smattering of people in the crowd give them the finger (a universal message needing no translation). Or maybe their gesturing is because Perez was married to Selena, the gunned-down diva who represented the blandest, most mainstream aspects of the current Latin-pop boom. Whatever—Perez rocks. His band's half-hour is one of the best sets of the day, and we don't feel guilty about saying so.
Argentina's Todos Tus Muertos (All Your Dead) are even more fiery, burning like a Rage Against the Machine set the day after a U.S. air strike on a Third World country. And they're just as political: they named themselves in honor of 30,000 killed by '70s Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. Fidel Nadal, their dreadlocked, bearded front man, frantically leaps around the stage like this was the last gig of his life, which inspires much stage-diving, crowd-surfing and chronic-sucking in the audience. Several of their songs are clearly about anarchy, which, if they had sung them 20 years ago in their home country, would have gotten them bullets in their heads or a chopper flight and skydive without parachute over the frosty South Atlantic. Like Latin Frozz, they're also about unity—and here come Latin Frozz now, who toss back whiplash rhymes with Nadal. It's a furious rock rap collision, a culture merge that ends with embraces all around. Todos' final song invokes Zapata and revolution. They leave, but the crowd yells for more: "Muertos! Muertos! Muertos!"
Co-headliners Caf Tacuba, one of rock en espaol's most popular bands, are all about hyperactive, off-kilter rhythms, and a freaky front man who's currently named AT Medardo ILK (he changes it with each new album). They have no drummer—at least not on this tour—just a programmer. Still, they're as creative and experimental as Beck: on one song, their fiddle player effortlessly guides the band into a Mexican folk ballad, and after sticking with that for a few minutes, they lock into a soul groove, with ringing guitars clearly swiped from old Byrds records. Caf Tacuba are wonderfully odd yet extremely poppy.
They're nowhere as pissed-off, though, as Mexico's Molotov, another rap-rock band, who sample "Bohemian Rhapsody" while churning up aggressive, up-yours guitar riffs and deep, guttural wailing. But just when you think they're getting too one-dimensional, they invoke U2: "This is not a rebel song, this is 'Chinga Tu Madre!'" If you didn't learn it on the playground during recess when you were growing up, that means "motherfucker." And soon, the entire theater is filled with perfectly timed scream chants: "Chinga! . . . Tu madre! . . . Chinga! . . . Tu madre! . . . Chinga! . . . Tu madre!"
Insipid? Sure. But it's also the perfect way to wrap up Watcha, with a primal, anti-authoritarian rant that's as liberating to holler along with as Rage's "Fuck you; I won't do what you tell me!" and Ice T's "Fuck the police!"—as explosive as the cocktail that Molotov named themselves after.
But who is Molotov aiming at? More important, who's the crowd thinking of when they scream, "Chinga tu madre"? Mother Mexico's rulers, who for years made rock & roll very hard to find, lest it corrupt the country's youth (in the '50s, one Mexican newspaper went so far as to print an unsubstantiated story about Elvis, quoting him as supposedly having said, "I'd prefer to kiss three Negro women than one Mexican")? Are they thinking of opportunistic Alta California politicians, who've been using Latin immigration as a wedge issue to fuel their own gains for far too long now? Who knows?
And right now, no one cares—sometimes, in any language, it's great to just feel like a punk. We look up. On a hilltop next to the arena, a small fire is blazing brightly. La futura, again. After the show, just outside the exit, stands Giovanny Blanco, Viva Malpache's singer. He's handing out fliers for his band's upcoming gigs, saying hello to new fans, and soaking up much praise. We introduce ourselves, telling him we thought they played great and letting him know who we are and where we're from. "Oh, yeah, Orange County," he says. "We've played the Foothill and some other places down there. We'd like to do more shows. What we really want to do, though, is play the Doll Hut. We want to really start building up our credibility." Viva la revolucin!
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.