Norteño music is sufficient unto itself.
As a gringo who loves talking about this music, I often find myself comparing norteño to other U.S. genres — especially our chart pop, with which it shares predilections for dancing, drinking, and lovey dovey ballads. Other writers have pointed out the music’s similarites to country (hats, horses, drinking, instrumentation) or rap (attitude, marginalized artists, drinking, trapping-as-metaphor), but all such comparisons ultimately fall short, because norteño doesn’t need ’em. At Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom last Saturday, this self-sufficiency once again became clear. A packed house of four or five thousand people sang along with entire songs by Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes, Regulo Caro, Lenin Ramirez, and (I assume) the headliner Gerardo Ortiz, each of whom presented a unique modern take on an unapologetically Mexican tradition.
(About that last parenthetical… before we get too far I should admit that I left before Ortiz took the stage. Reader, you have to understand some things. It was after midnight, I work early Sunday mornings, I live more than an hour outside the city, the snow had started falling, and I am 40. Also know that you cannot shame me more than I have shamed myself.)
The crowd, ninety percent of whom were younger than me and had better hair, screamed when each act shouted out their families’ states of origin: “¡Arriba Jalisco! ¡Arriba Zacatecas!” Fans pulled out their cell phones to record the hits, devoting gigabytes of cloud storage to Chaidez’s “Te Regalo” and Caro’s “En Estos Dias.” I was grateful not to be the worst dressed person there. With my black Nikes (the nicest article of clothing I own, now salt stained and sticky), leather jacket, paisley shirt, and dark jeans, I was somewhere in the middle of the pack: well below the stylish vaqueros and vaqueras in their spotless hats and glistening belts, but not super conspicuous.
Billed as a “Baile de Valentine’s Day,” the bands and between-set DJs leaned heavily on dance tunes and love songs, but maybe they always do. The Aragon has limited VIP seating — the VIPs stood impassively above the rest of us, resembling the stony-faced onlookers at the Eyes Wide Shut orgy — so most of the crowd simply stood and danced on the main floor. The place filled up during an opening set by a tight accordion quintet whose name neither I nor my neighbors caught. When they finished playing and I turned around, thousands of people had materialized to fill the hall, and it was clear that any attempt to exit would require detailed planning. As the crowd packed in tighter and tighter, brief shoving matches became more frequent and the elbows of oblivious dancing couples became more annoying. (I was also grateful not to be the only dorky dude fixed to one spot, bobbing his head.) Like a shark through the sea of people strode an intrepid five-foot-tall vendedora, holding bouquets of light-up roses above her head. I didn’t see anyone buy them, but she kept trying.
Ulices Chaidez didn’t help her cause by tossing real roses from the stage. The Blog has been in the tank for Chaidez since his first single, and while I was disappointed with the high ballad quotient of his 2017 album El Elegido (on DEL Records — maybe with the exception of the opening grupo, all these guys are on DEL), in concert he was spectacular.
Chaidez played lead requinto guitar, and the core of his music is his interplay with tubist Omar Burgos, whose elaborate parts double as bassline and lead foil. Even on a simple Magic Changes pop tune like “Como los Vaqueros” (a previous Pick to Click), Chaidez deploys a varied repertoire of fills, and Burgos replies with triple-tongued flourishes and squawks. Somehow they do all this while keeping a beat.
18-year-old Chaidez is the youngest member of his band, but he controlled their set with calm confidence, gesturing directions to Burgos while the rhythm guitarist, Mario Arturo Arredondo Lozoya, acted as hypeman, introducing the songs and shouting out his teenaged bandleader. Chaidez frequently relied on a total rock star pose, leaning back and lifting the neck of his guitar while rapidly strumming to change the texture of the songs. Together, he and his Plebes created exquisitely detailed music that never lost its groove.
Neither did Regulo Caro and his Sangre Nueva band, although their neverending groove grew oppressive. Whoever was mixing the sound thought we needed a whole lot of kick drum, pounded with unfailing accuracy by baterista El Samoano‘s right foot. This inspired less couples dancing and more head bobbing, until the crowd resembled the throbbing throng of hipsters at a Lightning Bolt show, distilling all rhythmic complexities down to their one-beat-per-second essence. Except, unlike Lightning Bolt, Sangre Nueva’s waltzes never gelled into a cohesive band sound. This, along with the octet’s lack of horns, didn’t do any favors for songs like “Soltero Disponible” and “En Estos Dias,” which respectively skip and sway on record but here seemed resigned to thud.
A couple other things about Regulo Caro:
He has a complex relationship with a certain stage prop, an extremely phallic skeleton-shaped mic stand. In one sense, yes, the skeleton mic stand is his dick, as every man’s mic stand is sometimes a dick.
But Caro’s mic stand is also the skeleton of another person, which Caro often appears to violate in ways that range from tender to All Business.
You can bet that NorteñoBlog is hard at work on a JSTOR showstopper unpacking the complex of meanings enmeshed in Caro’s alternately masturbatory and sexually dominant mic stand personae. Working thesis: Regulo Caro hate fucks his enemy; BUT IS THAT ENEMY IN FACT HIS OWN DICK, I.E. A MANIFESTATION OF HIS MASCULINE SELF? Tip my analyst on your way out.
Second, my description of Sangre Nueva’s sound might seem to imply that they’re punks, more interested in bash-happy energy and style than niceties of song delivery or whatever. In fact, they’re not quite that cool. True, they dress in leather jackets (shinier than mine) and eschew cowboy hats, an urban contrast to Ulices Chaidez’s genteel “Como los Vaqueros” presentation. But they also act like dumb fratboys. Large portions of the show devolved into Caro and his hypeman running around the stage taking selfies — while still singing — or pouring liquor down their throats and the throats of their bandmates. A recovering cocktail pianist myself, I am all for mixing liquor and musicianship. But stage gambits get old, my dudes, especially when the mix sounds like shit.
Third, sierreño guitar is everywhere. Sangre Nueva operated as two bands mashed together: a requinto-led sierreño trio plus an accordion-fronted norteño quartet, with bajo sexto the common denominator and bass and tuba trading off duties a couple times per song. It’s possible Caro’s requinto player — Julian Mercado? — was a hotter soloist than Chaidez, but he was relegated to half-time sideman status. Last year’s live album Regulo Caro y Su Sangre Nueva: En Vivo did not represent the sound of this show at all. Its clean, bright accordion/tuba counterpoint was often lost in the thud, and the bajo sexto — sometimes the only instrument filling out the chords — was barely audible.
We should move on, lest I start to sound like the guys who bemoaned electric Miles back in the day. (“I say, good fellow, are they playing in a swamp?”) After an epic journey through the bathroom line, I emerged from the haze to hear Lenin Ramirez, whose well mixed requinto player stood right up front. Ramirez’s band was an innovative mix of banda and sierreño. Requinto and tuba duets alternated with fanfares from three trumpets, a trombone, and an alto horn — so if you avoid banda because of the cloying clarinets, Ramirez is your guy. Two different guys took up percussion duty, one on tambora and one on timbales. All this resulted in exciting, timbre-shifting arrangements of Ramirez’s songs, including previous Pick to Click “Recordando a Manuel” and his own blaring version of “Como los Vaqueros.”
By now I was hanging around the back of the theater, where there was more freedom of movement and less focused listening. Happy loving couples danced, their elbows flying freely. People yell-chatted with one another. Everyone checked their phones and most of us paid way too much for drinks. People had spent around $70 per ticket, which, when you subtract the venue’s cut plus whatever DEL takes out for expenses and profit, breaks down to probably a decent but not huge payday for, say, Lenin Ramirez’s alto horn player. (Maybe in the hundreds of dollars?) But with the exception of the mystery opening grupo, this was every musician’s second of three gigs over the weekend, including Friday night in Milwaukee and Sunday in the Chicago suburb of Markham. During the show we learned that Ortiz had been added to a February 18 bill in suburban Waukegan, upstaging poor El Coyote (but maybe boosting Coyote’s ticket sales). Meanwhile, Lenin Ramirez’s alto horn player is canvassing the West Coast this weekend. These guys work hard.
Every so often, a norteño musician — Luis Coronel, producer Juan Ramirez — makes noise about crossing over to the larger U.S. pop music audience. In our post-“Despacito” world it’s certainly possible; Ortiz’s experiments with bachata point in that direction, and Tex-Mex bands like Intocable or Siggno would barely have to change their sound. But norteño music has built a thriving infrastructure for its own growing U.S. audience: young Mexican Americans who find themselves tied to both countries. On any other night they might have attended a Luke Bryan or Niall Horan show. Whether they feel equally at home in both worlds, or like they have no place to lay their heads, this is their music. Like the audiences for rap or country, they form a nation within a nation, but one with porous enough borders to accommodate this grateful gabacho.