Chicano Batman At One Colorado in Pasadena, Saturday June 17th 2017
Chicano Batman may have picked the coolest moniker around for their musical act – I really like the fact it elevates a term too often associated with society’s low-wage workers to a superhero prestige – but they completely fulfilled their superhero status on Saturday night: When they got technical sound problems – we suddenly couldn’t hear Bardo Martinez’s voice anymore as his mic went silent when he jumped in the pit to get closer to the crowd – they continued playing their strange amalgam of soul, retro-R&B and Mexican quinceañera backyard parties during a completely original moment, which seemed improvised.
Chicano Batman are vintage at core, they even dress like they are auditioning for lounge singer jobs but they never stay for very long trapped into one of their so-James-Brown funky detours. Soon the music morphs into something else, taking the shape of a lazy beach day, infused with jazz guitars and ethereal to languorous R&B vocals, floating above a throbbing Casiotone organ which always reminds me the soundtrack of the indie movie ‘Napoleon Dynamite’.
But first of all, I have to mention the large crowd! Chicano Batman was playing a free show at One Colorado in Pasadena, during KCRW’s Summer Nights Series and the place was already packed when I arrived, 2 hours before the show. I knew they were very popular but I hadn’t expected such success! They reached capacity very soon and I was just happy to find a spot on the side of the stage. My first encounter with Chicano Batman was years ago, when they played a modest show at Amoeba in 2011, and at the time I had no problem to get in the front, but the band’s success has grown exponentially since. They recently played Coachella, they have a spot at the FYF Fest among many other festivals, they have 2 consecutive dates at the Fonda in September, so these LA superheroes are certainly in high demand and loved by so many, and I still didn’t completely understand the appeal right away. The music is infused with retro stuff of all sort and honestly a bit… weird at times, especially their abundant use of that Napoleon-Dynamite casio-organ. But it may not be a coincidence to parallel both phenomenons, they are both pure DIY indie enterprises, bizarre and original, and getting big success while entering the pop culture world of the masses.
The sound is often drenched in a funky sunshine with instrumental solos, plenty of Santana wah-wah pedal, nostalgia galore and honeying harmonies, as they had at times backed-up singers doubling the wobbling organ. As complex as they sound, they are Los Angeles’ quintessence. Still, their song structures are the strangest ones, sketching a melody and shifting at right angle into a new one, while engulfing a myriad of musical bits coming from many horizons. It’s dense and puzzling at first but the crowd loved each moment of their show, especially the dancing parts.
As they navigate between soul and funk, James Brown and Prince, American 60-70s R&B influences and other psychedelia and Tropicalia, the music sound as fresh as it sounds old because of its kaleidoscopic texture. But when bassist Eduardo Arenas took the lead vocals for a song (in Spanish) everyone was ready for a Mexican party. I feel bad for all these people who had been waiting for so long with sleeping babies and sandwiches in hand, because after the sound problem and their short improvisation, they never came back on stage, this couldn’t be fixed that fast apparently.
‘This is for the people of the sun’, said Bardo just before ‘Flecha al Sol’. another very upbeat song in Spanish licked by their retro wobbling lounge casio-keyboard. The song comes from their last album ‘Freedom is Free’ released last March, after their eponymous 2010 debut and their 2014’s ‘Cycles Of Existential Rhyme’, The title is an obvious reference to ‘Freedom isn’t free’, a popular catch sentence plastered on many trucks after the war in Irak. But their new album is packed with protest and revolutionary ideas – ‘The Taker Story’ for example denunciates humans’ destruction nature. And this should never let you forget, that, if Chicano Batman have the beats, the vintage grooves, the licks and the funk, they also have the right words.