Before taking the stage of the Gibson Amphitheatre on Friday night, the pop-mariachi-ranchera singer Pepe Aguilar was preceded by giant video projections of swirling Mexican flags, tolling liberty bells and the stern countenances of Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and José María Morelos.
A heavy-handed patriotic display? Not really. This year marks both the bicentennial of Mexico's war of independence from Spain and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. Few contemporary Mexican American artists express pride in that cultural heritage more fervently than this Texas-born son of the Mexican singer, film star and all-around pop-culture idol Antonio Aguilar.
Now in his early 40s, Pepe Aguilar has been performing since his parents brought him on tour as a toddler. A prolific recording artist and savvy businessman with a large discography, his own record company, a personal clothing line and a trunkful of awards and citations from politicians and civic entities on both sides of the border, Aguilar is a hard-working entertainer who has never treated his success as a birthright.
He has earned it for himself. And if he occasionally does wrap himself in the tricolor Mexican bandera, it only endears him to a large, passionate fan base that reveres the singer as if he were a revolutionary general.
"I am of the bronze race, I am a poet and a farmer, through my veins runs noble blood, Indian blood," he roared Friday night on "100% Mexicano," his show-opening signature number. Bolstered by more than a dozen sombrero'd mariachi musicians, a guitarist, bass and accordion player, two percussionists, two keyboardists and two backup female singers, the song reached beyond pop sentimentality toward becoming a secular anthem of the mestizo immigrant.
With his old-fangled charro suits, thunderous delivery and imposing physicality (he stands well above 6-foot-4 in rodeo boots), Aguilar brings a rock 'n' roll edge of rebellious, adrenalized swagger to a traditional Zacatecas banda tune. Conversely, he can caress a romantic paean, such as "Recuerdame Bonito," with a sweetly impassioned and vulnerable upper register, putting him in the company of such polished crooners as Luis Miguel and Juan Gabriel.
Friday's show, the first of two over the weekend at the Gibson, gave his followers exactly what they wanted, which is to say exactly what they expected, with few major twists or surprises. The hits flowed one after another — "Chaparrita Consentida," "Me Estoy Acostumbrando a Ti," "Mi Credo" — augmented now and then with a briefly simmering guitar solo, a melancholy trumpet flourish or a lush brace of violins on "He Venido a Pedirte Perdón."
But usually, the instrumentals yielded for Aguilar's formidable voice and persona. Although he likes to portray a defiant fighter, Aguilar is primarily a seducer and a dispenser of sacraments, continually wiping his face with black towels that he tossed to adoring females in the front rows.
For an encore, Aguilar brought out a cadre of brass players and ripped through a traditional Zacatecan-regional five-song set.
The late Don Antonio would be proud. Who knows? Pancho Villa might be as well.