Tucson International Mariachi Conference
Mariachi Espectacular subdued before small crowd
Empty seats, repeat performers, current events keep concert from taking flight
The right crowd can make a performer soar beyond known limits, while a tepid audience response can blunt even the greatest artistry. Despite technically superb performances, Friday night's Tucson International Mariachi Conference Espectacular concert seemed subdued compared to past years, the chemistry between performer and audience never quite reaching that synergistic heat.
In part it was the smallish crowd at the Tucson Convention Center Arena, where blue waves of empty seats were seen even when the students were seated. Not surprising given the state of the economy, nor atypical for many arts groups. But it was sad nonetheless. Overall, the crowd seemed somewhat underwhelmed.
Admittedly too the bulk of the main performers – El Paso's Los Arrieros, Tucson's Mariachi Cobre and Los Camperos de Nati Cano – are frequent regulars at the conference, albeit world-class talent all around. The only real wild card this year was Lila Downs, and the crowd seemed a bit divided about her.
Dressed in a shimmering red floor-length gown and glittering top, Downs used her sleek white shawl to create the illusion of a dove's wings as she delivered the classic "Cucurrucucu Paloma" last night.
She proved she has both the pipes and the interpretive skills to bring something new to the ranchera fare of the mariachi soloist. Though not as commanding a presence as Lola Beltran, Downs in her brief set showed a willingness to bring theatrical touches to the material.
Still, when she announced her final number, people started streaming from their seats towards the exits as she sang. It was late, admittedly (these things always go on into the night) and many were no doubt tired and anxious to beat the crowds. But it was also a reflection that some in the audience had been unimpressed.
For me, overall it was a very good but not over the top show. That said there were many impressive elements. One came almost straight off the top as folklórico maestro Rafael Zamarripa mounted an epic dance tribute to the centennial of the Mexican revolution, complete with the sounds of cannons and gunfire and stirring choreography.
Another was Mariachi Cobre's set of classic fare from Mexican cinema. Even for Cobre, which sets the standard for individual and collective vocal artistry, the endless stream of vocal talent stepping to the microphone was nothing shy of amazing. From hushed, luminous massed harmonies to firebrand moments to rival a Verdi chorus, Cobre sculpted its vocal and instrumental lines with absolute precision.
Los Arrieros too brought the goods in its too-short set. But even its energetic showmanship and spotless musical artistry couldn't quite light the full candle under last night's crowd. That said, it was great to see them on the Espectacular bill as it has been too frequently relegated to teaching and Fiesta Garibaldi duties in recent years.
It was absolutely correct that the conference used the occasion to pay special tribute to Nati Cano last night for 50 years as leader of Los Camperos. The venerable 77 year old, who shared with the crowd that he has a 32 year old wife and kids 13 and nine, was perhaps slightly subdued relative to past years but surprisingly energetic considering he is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and spent a full week teaching at the conference's workshops.
The entire second half of the program was a showcase for Los Camperos, with the group tucking in its able accompaniment of Lila Downs as part of its set.
Like Arrieros and Cobre before them, Los Camperos' set was filled with showmanship, instrumental flair and broad vocal artistry. And there was a great deal of nostalgia too, not just when the whole crowd joined artistic director Jesus "Chuy" Guzman in singing "Volver, Volver" but in the way Cano brought back and honored venerable Camperos veterans of the past, as well as showcasing the group's latest talented member.
Los Camperos' tribute to Tucson-born father of Chicano music Lalo Guerrero was a crowd pleaser too. And it was lovely too for Cano to early-on spotlight one of the conference's longest workshop participants – blind harpist and accordion master Ernie Ferra – and give him a chance to shine with the big guns. That humble generosity and dedication to the next generation has always been the hallmark of Nati Cano's personal style. He is one class act, and a true treasure of the mariachi world.
A shout-out too to another long-time veteran of TIMC, emcee Jose Ronstadt, who last night hilariously wove the headlines of Governor Jan Brewer's signing of the controversial immigration enforcement act into his onstage patter. Perhaps that, along with the economy, was the elephant in the room that put the lid on crowd enthusiasm last night.
Or maybe we're just a little spoiled. Maybe we've become so used to top-notch performances that we just don't respond to them with the excitement we once had. Maybe what we need is someone truly dreadful to come on board to remind us how good we have it.