Cumbia de la Pachanga!

Nine hours at Fiesta Garden's Latino Music Festival on Saturday turns into a rock en Español empanada

Gaby Moreno, buenissima
Gaby Moreno, buenissima (by John Anderson)

A righteous throw down it was too.

Testament to the ultimate success of Saturday’s Pachanga! Latino Music Festival at Fiesta Gardens occurred during nearly every performance of the second-year event. You couldn’t enjoy a full set for fear you were missing an equally gratifying vibe at one of the other two stages. Opposite ends of the venue’s lush grounds made for a two-minute trek that nevertheless justified multiple PopSoCools on a hot, still afternoon down by the riverside.

Nine hours after my day began with El Tule’s ninepiece horn-, guitar-, and percussion-driven Woodstock, both headliners – Mexico City cumbia rockers Mexican Institute of Sound and Chihuahua-originated black-hat Tejano Michael Salgado – rocked Austin’s Eastside every watt as memorable as Of Montreal’s carnivalesque set in the unfathomably underutilized locale last fall. The crucial difference? Rather than a familiar variant of indie nation, cowtown’s rarely experienced melting pot kept its offspring shaded and hydrated in increasing numbers as the fiesta progressed. At the end of the marathon, Pachanga’s peak, co-organizer Rich Garza barely fathomed a weary, but genuinely validated estimate of 3,500 patrons.

Whatever their number, each and every one of them will gush on exactly what went down at the famed Live Music Capital’s newest gathering of tribes.

As co-Pachanga! promoter Alex Vallejo gave drum lessons in the Niños Rock Pachanga tent (“Latinos already have rhythm so we don’t need the down beat”), and El Tule swung through their “Three Widows” cumbia, local rock en Español quartet Kalua clamped down on wicked Spanish/German standard “Malagueña.” Maneja Beto keyboardist Bobby Garza explained octaves to the niños back in the shade, before Los Bad Apples followed fellow scensters Kalua with a peculiar blend of Latin American slink fronted by Anita Benner and rapper Zeale, who instigated early afternoon shaking by the best crowd yet, especially on the group's “Cumbia Chica.” David Garza closed the niños tutorial portion of Pachanga! with a songwriting demo beginning with “Happy Birthday” (“That’s the first song written 10 millions years ago by the cave mans”), and the “Hokey Pokey.” The day was anything but pokey.

Pachanga All Stars materialized as Vallejo with special guests, notably Guanajuato, Mexico, native fiddler Haydn Vitera, and at the finale, Los Bad Apples’ Anita Benner, with the Santana-loving sponsors (“Jingo”) dedicating their “Sweet Maria” to Steamboat captain Danny Crooks, who’d earlier taken credit for nurturing the local Latin rock scene in the mid-1990s by giving initial Sixth Street gigs to Vallejo, Del Castillo, Charanga Cakewalk’s Michael Ramos, and Los Lonely Boys. Give gracias at Threadgill’s Steamboat reunion Sunday, June 14.

Guatemalan turned Los Angelino Gaby Moreno turned in one of the festival’s breakout performances her second time in town. Leveraging her best Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes) to match her cherry red Harmony Rocker electric guitar, the singer’s trio plowed through her 2008 debut Still the Unknown, standouts “Wrong Side of the Road” and closer “Greenhorne Man” bookending Buena Vista Social Club calling card “Quizás, Quizás” and Moreno's duet with David Garza, “Amapola,” one of the uncontested highlights of the event. Brooklyn hybrid Cordero on the same stage later paled in comparison with its generic Latin pop, although the quartet's tribute to Spanish bullfighter Christina Sanchez revived the sun-baked assembly with a choral cry of “toro!”

In-between, Austin’s Ocote Soul Sounds cooked up an empanada of South American sounds, two guitars, twin fiddles, and even a pair of flutes, plus baritone sax and jawbone, metering out what should have doubled as a rain dance to cool the sweltering day. At the other end of the grounds, AJ Castillo and his powerhouse 7-piece built a “Brick House” of cumbias, rancheras, and polkas, with the frontman’s glitterati accordion infinitely more galvanizing than a guitar. Watch for this local. Castillo’s the Del Castillo of the Tejano set, his 17-year-old brother and MC Sergio another one to follow. Closer “El Super Man” proved capable of leaping Los Lobos' cumbias in a single bound.

Maneja Beto’s synth-driven New Wave take on Latin organic constituted another uniquely ATX musical offshoot – OMD meets Malo – while Chris Perez’s hair band offered weak power chords and not a single hint of his past life as Selena’s widower. In David Garza’s charismatic lockdown of all things Capital City rock y roll, including Nina Singh’s lioness beat and Suzanna Choffel’s “trial by Tejano fire,” manifested the musical side of the festival’s melting pot. His 10-minute closer, a cover cumbia of New Orleans’ Iguanas, steamrolled like Latin rock’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, Austin’s True Believers. Given the 1970s wah-wah guitar interplay of Grupo Fantasma siphon Brownout (“Laredo ‘77”), next year’s Pachanga! bill requires the Cream brownout of Amplified Heat. An undulating throng, including Garza and dancing partner Choffel, and later a conga line inhaled every pulsed beat of electro-cumbia by Charanga Cakewalk, Esquivel in Tejano mode, while San Antonio’s nine-piece female Mariachi Altenas, resplendent in matching red historical Spanish fashion, deserved the encore tight stage schedules didn't allow.

That left only the two headliners, Mexican Institute of Sound delivering a big festival rock-out despite only three laptop technicians fronting a live rhythm section, and Michael Salgado’s menacing all-in-black Tejano quartet banging out a “ritmo romantico” in the frontman’s quicksand voice – grainy, bottomless. As undeniable as the music line-up at Pachanga! 2 was the fact that cumbias are to all forms of Latino sonidos what guitars are to Marshall stacks.


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