Mariachi El Bronx

Mariachi El Bronx


What a treat this week for Manchester fans of The Bronx! Not only is the punk band from LA playing at The Ruby Lounge tomorrow, but we also get to see a performance tonight, at the same venue, by its alter-ego, mariachi band Mariachi El Bronx. Gig-goers could either buy a discounted ‘combo ticket’ for entry to both shows or just pay for one of the nights individually, and it didn’t take long for this eclectic double-header to sell out.

It seems sad that my exposure to mariachi is for the most part limited to tonight’s headliners and to elements of other US bands like Los Lobos and Calexico. Whoever Mexico’s latest mariachi sensation might be, I certainly haven’t heard them played on the radio after a Rihanna track, and more’s the pity because I want to hear the mujeres y hombres from south of the border as well. Still, in the case of El Bronx, being Californian with roots in hardcore punk is irrelevant when its three eponymous LPs to date provide such compelling evidence of a band that fully embraces the mariachi style with a passion.

To warm us up for the main act, we have two openers tonight, the first of which is instrumental band Pounded by the Surf. Three quarters of the four-piece is made up of El Bronx members, but the music is very different. All wearing cowboy hats except for bassist Brad Magers, Pounded play what might be described as Spaghetti Western surf rock. Earlier I was probably a tad underdressed for my walk through the December rain to The Ruby Lounge, and I am stood by the pillar below the air conditioning, so I hadn’t been feeling particularly warm, but the energy of this music is doing me the power of good. My body is revitalized and my head is filled with desert imagery.

My favourite songwriter Craig Finn is up next. Best known as the front man in Brooklyn band The Hold Steady, I last saw Finn at a house party back in September when he was the special guest and played a solo set in the living room. Tonight is the same kind of deal in that it’s just Finn and his acoustic guitar – quite a contrast from the triple-electric-guitar attack of his regular band. Finn has released two solo records of his own, the latest of which is this year’s Faith in the Future, and the set pulls entirely from those two LPs except for a rendition of The Hold Steady’s celebration of the jukebox, ‘Certain Songs’. Finn’s uncomplicated guitar style adds even more intensity to his performance, and at one point he stares into the middle distance like a man possessed as he strums the same chord over and over. There’s friendly chat between songs about relationships, a touching story about 09/11/2001 and Satan-related anecdotes involving Kiss and Led Zeppelin. Finn is joined on stage by Pounded by the Surf for the set’s rousing closer, ‘I Was Doing Fine (Then a Few People Died)’.

Preparations now begin for the arrival of El Bronx, and before long its touring line-up of eight members, all dressed in elegant, matching charro uniforms, invades the smallish stage like a swarm of giant black insects. Armed with instruments including guitars, guitarrón, violin, two trumpets, accordion and various percussive instruments, the band races through ‘Right Between the Eyes’, hopeful prison song and first single ‘Cell Mates’ and the confessional ’48 Roses’. Shaven-headed singer Matt Caughthran completely runs the show for El Bronx. Where his band mates’ faces are locked in concentration as they play their instruments, Caughthran is free from any such musical responsibility, commanding the stage and beaming from ear to ear when not singing or chatting with us. Notably, the last time I heard Caughthran speak before tonight was a cool soundbite he recorded for last Saturday’s Silent Radio Show.

Tonight he’s giving new meaning to one of my favourite Lambchop songs, the comical ‘All Smiles and Mariachi’, and his buoyancy is infectious. He understands that his job is to make El Bronx shows a party atmosphere and he sees to it that the energy in the crowd never lets up. At one point Caughthran jokes with us that we haven’t given him any Christmas presents yet, not even a lump of coal or a Nando’s gift certificate. We’re all take-take-take, and he’s thinking of changing the band’s name to The Giving Tree. Just then, a bit of paper lands on stage, and much to the delight of Caughthran, it’s a Triple Nectar Points coupon. He’s not sure what it’s for, but surely it’s something awesome.

‘Norteño Lights’ is dedicated to Donald Trump (randomly, as far as I know), ‘Silver or Lead’ goes down a storm, and the crowd needs very little encouragement from Caughthran to sing along to cross-border love song ‘Revolution Girls’. My perception of mariachi is that the trumpets and violin are essential, but along with Caughthran with his honeyed rasp and big personality, if I had to pick the two other key components of the El Bronx live show, I’d go for Jody J. Ford on guitar and Jorma Vik on drums, both also founding-members of The Bronx back in 2002. Ford’s appearance tonight looks like it could have been in doubt at some point as his right hand is heavily bandaged, but his finger-picking skills seem unaffected. I can’t imagine El Bronx without him. Drums are not traditionally a part of a mariachi band, but happily El Bronx do whatever they want, and Vik’s indefatigable rhythms from his stand-up position behind the kit keep the fiesta going all evening.

I’d quite like to chill below the air con at every gig because now the El Bronx party has come to an end and I’m still feeling fresh and wanting more. I ask myself: do I try to snag myself a ticket for The Bronx back here tomorrow night or stick to the original plan of seeing Shopping at Night and Day Café? These are the Mancunian dilemmas that it’s always nice to have.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.