Playback: Strictly Conjunto

“We don’t want this music to die” – Johnny Degollado


Johnny Degollado (l) and J.J. Barrera at the Hispanic Heritage Accordion Festival, May 5 (Photo by John Anderson)

Flaco Jiménez surveyed a small, but loyal audience after midnight on Cinco de Mayo and posed an important question:

"Where's the beer?"

A volunteer charged in from side stage brandishing a tall can of Bud Light like it was the Holy Grail, presenting it to the 79-year-old master acordeonista, who tipped back a hearty, six-second chug and handed it off before gliding into a Tex-Mex rendition of "Together Again." His graceful digits danced over the buttons like his father and his father before, while his rich voice filled the air with romance, heartfelt and true. The crowd at Stubb's sang every word.

Unfortunately, the 2,200-capacity amphitheatre was less than one-tenth full. In its fifth year, the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival again secured Red River's largest venue and a world-class headliner who owns six Grammy statues and counts Dylan and the Stones as collaborators. Nevertheless, Saturday's 18-act bill of conjunto and Tejano acts ultimately yielded scant attendance.

You can't accuse Austin of lacking an appetite for Latin music. The same night, local Grammy winners Grupo Fantasma pulled a strong showing at the Belmont and mind-blowing Selena tribute act Bidi Bidi Banda packed out Mohawk just up the street. That local music fans, overconfident in their diverse and intellectual tastes, haven't woken up to traditional Latin music is sadly no surprise, but Saturday's audience discrepancy highlighted a generational divide in Mexican-American music that doesn't bode well for homegrown legends in their own right.

The night before at Come & Take It Live, a venue known for hosting headbangers, Ruben Ramos churned a dance floor thick with older Latinos. At 78, the Austin Eastsider remains impossibly suave in his black suit and sunglasses. An adolescent migrant worker who began honing his performance skills locally in 1958 as the drummer for his brother Alfonso's band, "El Gato Negro" led horn-heavy eightpiece the Mexican Revolution through two sets of emotionally rich balladry en español last Friday that manifested as nothing short of truly exquisite. With yours truly as one of only two Caucasians in attendance, once again attendance wasn't what a Grammy winner deserves.

Don't blame the venue, either. Prior to 2015 E. Riverside enduring the recent procession of Beauty Ballroom, Antone's, Midway Field House, Grizzly Hall, and now C+TIL, the building existed as a run of Latin hangouts including Cocktails and Club Kaos. Several local music lifers recall a pre-fame Selena Quintanilla performing in that building.

On Saturday afternoon at Eastside parkland Fiesta Gardens, 10-year-old Ricardo Cabrera – shades on, giant belt buckle gleaming – wowed attendees with advanced accordion skills sitting in with Conjunto Los Pinkys. Behind him, the Austin Music Hall of Fame band's veteran acordeonista and vocalist Isidro Samilpa, 73 years Cabrera's elder, nodded approvingly.

Cinco de Mayo, marking a triumphant day in 1862 when the Mexican army rolled hard on encroaching French forces, is largely regarded as a gringo-centric holiday. For the last 28 years at Fiesta Gardens, it's been fêted by conjunto ensembles – typically consisting of accordion, bajo sexto, electric bass, and drums – at the Hispanic Heritage Accordion Festival. The pachanga offers a vibrant and authentic display of Austin's rich Mexican-American culture.

The event's ringleader is 80-year-old Johnny Degollado, aka "El Montopolis Kid," whom the park's pavilion is named after. When he takes the stage, the dance floor triples with two-stepping grandparents. The stoic squeezeboxer and singer, flanked by equally veteran bajo picker Vincente Alonso and Tailgators great J.J. Barrera, delights the sprawling audience with pure conjunto, perfectly accented by bouncing fifths and held-over minor sevenths. He even tosses in a bilingual cover of "You Are My Sunshine."

"I bring in the best conjuntos in Texas," he says after the set. "Word has got around all over Texas about this festival and they all want to come play. The best conjuntos are in the Valley, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi, but Austin's are very good too."

The bandleader, who learned accordion from local Tejano trailblazer Camilo Cantú in the Forties, considers himself an acordeonista, but notes, "All the record shops in Texas know me because of my songs." Last Saturday, he hawked CD copies of his brand new 32nd album, Noches Tenebrosas, which features an original polka titled "Viva Montopolis U.S.A." about his native Southeast Austin neighborhood. To the surprise of "Playback," Degollado doesn't play concerts or book south of the border.

"All U.S. citizens!" he says of the festival's lineup, which he's booked since its inception. "We don't want music from Mexico getting here."

That seems extreme, given the genre's cultural connections, but understandable if one believes that an indigenous genre he's been working for seven decades risks extinction.

"We don't want this music to die," he states. "We have music coming from Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic that young people are listening to, but we want to keep this music going. Conjunto music!"

True and deeply traditional roots music, conjunto and the more expansive Tejano are major arteries in our city's musical bloodlines. Sure, Willie Nelson's ancient, but he moved here in the Seventies. Acordeonista Chencho Flores, who performed Saturday at Stubb's, played his first show on Sixth Street in the Forties. Manuel "Cowboy" Donley – still kicking, but seldom gigging – began even earlier. While only black bluesmen and certain Western swingers boast comparable local lineage, Mexican-American músicos exist as Austin's richest living musical history.

The same weekend, at the Seventh Street H-E-B, the older gentleman before me in the express lane wore an accordion holstered across his back. Despite the city's changing demographics, Latin culture ingrains Austin music as surely as blues, country, and rock.

Half Notes

Euphoria Fest organizers failed to secure the necessary permits to hold this weekend's festival at Carson Creek Ranch, so now it becomes a run of club shows not unlike Levitation two weeks ago. The concerts, free for festival ticketholders, mostly take place Saturday at Mohawk, Barracuda, and Empire featuring acts like Hippie Sabotage, k?d, Medasin, and Graves.

Waterloo Music Festival, a new and large-scale jam band event, is set to debut at the aforementioned Carson Creek Ranch Sept. 7-9. The three-day campout, headlined by a trio of String Cheese Incident shows and the Texas debut of Joe Russo's Almost Dead, is organized by Empire/Parish operator Stephen Sternschein plus partners Briggs Mitchell and Scott Holmes.

BLK Vinyl opened Sunday at 2505 E. Sixth. Austin's newest mid-sized record store has a solid selection of mostly used LPs – heavy on classics – that are priced fairly. I scored Shel Silverstein's Freakin' at the Freakers Ball, Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home, and the Persuaders' Thin Line Between Love and Hate for under $10 each, then shelled out $25 for a primo original copy of Neil Young's best album (On the Beach, duh). BLK's owners play in bands including Burgess Meredith, Go Fever, and Star Parks.

TC Superstar proved the unexpected highlight of Saturday's Bill Ball formal at Barracuda. The artistically ambitious, yet musically stripped-down synth wave act resembles a cross between Chromeo and Talking Heads. Singer Connor McCampbell provides legit dance moves and is flanked by LB Flett and Emily DiFranco, whose synchronized-swimming-on-land choreography stunned those in attendance. Check out their recent EP Heat Death.

Texas Record Label Bazaar runs 3-7pm on Saturday at ABGB. The event features tables of vinyl, CDs, and other merch from 25 mostly-local labels including Modern Outsider, Keeled Scales, Nine Mile, Super Secret, Chicken Ranch, and Saustex.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Conjunto, Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival, Flaco Jimenez, Ruben Ramos, Bidi Bidi Banda, Grupo Fantasma, Johnny Degollado, Selena, Isidro Samilpa, Hispanic Heritage Accordion Festival, Euphoria Fest, Waterloo Music Festival, BLK Vinyl, TC Superstar, Texas Record Label

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