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Quetzal answers all questions

East L.A.'s own still carries the torch high despite a multitude of setbacks along the way.

January 23, 2006|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

The three bands featured on a student-sponsored bill at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Theatre on Friday night had only one thing in common: They all emerged in the 1990s and have managed to survive in L.A.'s brutal alt-Latino music scene. In style and substance, they were all over the map.

Very Be Careful, the opening band with the mis-very-leading name, played a set of lively but conventional vallenato from Colombia. Los Super Elegantes followed with its self-consciously campy act that's part Tijuana Brass, part Austin Powers and part punked-out Pimpinela.

Artistically, the night belonged to Quetzal, the pioneering Chicano band from East L.A. that continues to push the boundaries of its stirring musical fusions. It closed the almost four-hour show with a rousing set that restored faith in the ability of L.A. Chicanos to create original, meaningful music capable of moving both the soul of listeners and the soles of dancers, though you wouldn't know it from the night's incongruously low-key crowd.

The band appeared with a new lineup minus violins, new songs from an upcoming album and a new sound, more bluesy and biting, less sweet and folkloric. This is a meaner and tighter Quetzal, forged in the crucible of dead-end label deals and defections of longtime members. And it's the band's most commanding incarnation yet.

The only original members remaining are its husband-and-wife co-founders, guitarist Quetzal Flores and singer Martha Gonzalez. The group's metamorphosis was signaled when Flores took the stage almost unrecognizable without his white jarocho hat, symbol of the son jarocho music from Veracruz that has been a key source of its inspiration. The lean bandleader let his long hair hang loose and looked like a Native American (in the broadest indigenous sense) bent on survival without selling out.

The most alchemic addition to the Quetzal mix is African American keyboardist Quincy McCrary, formerly of the hip-hop collective Burning Star, who brought a bluesy tinge and a voice with shades of Stevie Wonder. His addition gave the band a heavier, more aggressive groove, beefed up by drummer Andy Mendoza and Juan Perez with his spunky, funky bass. The rock overtones were accentuated by Flores, who occasionally switched to electric guitar, though even his requinto, the small jarocho guitar he usually plays, sounded fuzzed out and edgier at times.

On the traditional side, new guitarist and singer Cesar Castro embodied the authentic jarocho spirit with his flashy work on the genre's traditional small guitars and his beautiful vocals with their choirboy clarity. Castro replaces Gabriel Gonzalez, Martha's brother, as co-singer and frontman, splitting the sibling duo but adding a higher level of musicianship. For her part, Gonzalez seemed to enjoy the interaction with her new bandmates.

Considering the passion of their performance, it was hard to understand the stoic response from much of the audience, almost as still as students at a lecture. Quetzal's set may have lagged a little near the end, but when the band came back for an encore with some members of the other acts, the jam was as hot as anything from Havana. Still, part of the public seemed mummified.

Did somebody pass out sleeping pills at the door?

Some members of Very Be Careful also seemed to be snoozing standing up, inexplicably petrified while playing their pulsing rhythms. They need to take a cue in showmanship from bandmate Ricardo Guzman on accordion, who nearly fell off his chair while hugging and pumping his squeezebox.

It would have been hard to doze off during the eccentric performance by Los Super Elegantes, described as a mariachi-punk-hip-pop act founded 10 years ago in San Francisco by lead singers and actors Milena Muzquiz and Martiniano Lopez-Crozet. Their backup band packs some serious punch, but their spoofy cabaret shtick is all parody, complete with jaunty cha-cha steps and some silly French lyrics. ("Je suis tres bien," sings he. "Je suis tres terrible," sings she.)

When the ambiguously pop duo left the stage holding hands and waving goodbye while taking a running lap around their hot band, they left you befuddled but smiling.

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