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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Mariachi magic with Pepe Aguilar

The charismatic singer's stirring showmanship is more than a match for an extravagant set straight out of a Day of the Dead celebration.

October 02, 2006|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

At one point during Friday's festive concert by Mexican singer Pepe Aguilar at the Gibson Amphitheatre, I felt moved to pull out my cellphone and call my wife, who was home with a cold. For a moment, I held it open so she could catch even a distorted snippet of the singer's thrilling set, backed by his terrific Mariachi Zacatecano.

That may seem silly, but great mariachi music has that effect. It makes you want to reach out and touch someone. Unlike more niche styles such as banda and norteno, a stirring mariachi creates one of the few shared cultural experiences among Mexicans, cutting across class, race and region, not to mention borders.

In the first of three sold-out nights over the weekend, Aguilar ignited that communal spirit among his effusive fans. Despite a slow, somewhat mushy start with the soft ballads that have become his trademark, he turned his two-hour-plus show into one of the most satisfying Mexican music concerts in a long while.

Aguilar is one of Mexico's last great mariachi recording stars. He's the son of an iconic ranchera couple, Antonio Aguilar and Flor Silvestre, who ushered their sons into show business with their traveling rodeo when they were still boys.

The family left a legacy of colorful espectaculo, which in Spanish means simply entertainment.

Aguilar's sense of spectacle was evident in the surreal set design of his current show, with its Day of the Dead decor. It seemed a bit gaudy at first, with enormous billowy curtains and moving contraptions festooned with lights and flowers that ascended from the floor and descended from the ceiling. A little like Mexican Halloween on hydraulics.

Toward the end, the kabuki-style curtain suddenly dropped midsong, revealing an enormous grinning skull. The calavera, as it's called, is a jumbo version of the candy skulls popular in the indigenous celebration of Dia de los Muertos, when people commune with spirits in the afterlife, where mariachi is also popular, evidently. At one point, Aguilar exited, then reappeared through the skull, which parts open.

These days, even the dead are used as pitchmen. The name of Aguilar's fine new album, "Enamorado" ("In Love"), was projected across the skull's forehead. Forget til death do us part. In Aguilar's world, even skeletons have a heart.

Aguilar spreads out musically with this album, a well-chosen collection of covers of Latin pop hits and standards, such as Manuel Alejandro's soulful "Esta Triste Guitarra" ("This Sad Guitar"), popularized by Emmanuel. That was followed by a medley of classic rancheras by Jose Alfredo Jimenez, the greatest mariachi composer of all time. With Jimenez's anthemic "El Rey" ("The King"), Aguilar demonstrated that he has the pipes for the genre's most demanding melodies and the style to make them his own with subtle variations on some familiar lines.

He went on to interpret the first song his father taught him, "Albur de Amor" ("Wordplay of Love"), followed by the heart-wrenching bolero of lost love, "Cenizas" ("Ashes") by Wello Rivas, highlighting Aguilar's vocal tenderness.

With so much good music, the elaborate stage design, by England's Mark Fisher Studios (Rolling Stones, U2), in the end seemed superfluous. With Aguilar's varied repertoire, it also relied too heavily on cliched cultural symbols, in an amplified Anglo view of Mexican culture. You half-expected the spirit of Frida Kahlo to make an appearance.

Still, the set was as entertaining as it must have been expensive. Aguilar has said it is the most costly show of his career, designed to prove that Mexican music is not synonymous with poor production values.

But likewise, extravagant production is not synonymous with great live performances. The truth is, by the time the skull was revealed, Aguilar had done all the magic he needed on his own.

*

Agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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