A Potently Relevant Pancho Villa-Themed Song Cycle at the Prototype Festival

by delarue

Can you imagine Pancho Villa in Brooklyn in 2019? Considering how central the democratization of land was to his platform, it’s not hard to figure how the archetypal Mexican revolutionary would respond to the mass displacement of so many longtime residents to make room for “luxury condo” speculator property that no one will ever inhabit.

Last night at Bric Arts, keyboardist/composer Graham Reynolds led an energetic, supremely talented Austin band through what he termed a “multi-media theatrical concert,” exploring Villa’s life and myth via dark, ornate, Mexican-flavored rock interspersed with stormy, immersively cinematic interludes. Considering that so much of the action in the songs takes place on the US-Mexican border, there’s crushing irony in that the premiere took place in Marfa, Texas the day before the fateful 2016 election.

And there’s no small irony that the New York premiere – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – was staged in Brooklyn, less than a block from the property that corrupt former Borough President Marty Markowitz and his cronies conspired to turn over to to a out-of-state developer to sell at a ridiculous profit.

Reynolds’ music draws equally on ornate 70s rock like Pink Floyd and the Alan Parsons Project as much as mariachi, rancheras and boleros. Beyond the songs’ sheer catchiness and potent contemporary relevance, what’s best about this nonlinear suite of sorts is the vocals of tenor Paul Sanchez and mezzo-soprano Liz Cass. Most of the lyrics – a team effort by Mexico City-based collective Lagartijas Tiradas Al Sol, drawing deeply on history and many quotes from Villa himself –  are in Spanish But each singer articulates them with a resolute determination to drive them home. No gratuitous, over-the-top arioso diva BS here: even a non-native speaker can easily follow along. As a bonus, there are English supertitles for the Spanish and Spanish supertitles for the occasional English interlude. The translations, both ways, are excellent.

Towering angst, hope against hope and imminent doom interchange over an elegantly dynamic backdrop. Reynolds leads the band from behind the keyboard, shifting between neoromantic piano, gothic organ and smoky electronic battlefield swaths. Bassist Utah Hamrick (who also doubled on tuba) took the single most breathtaking solo of the night, channeling lurid Lynchian noir. Violinist Alexis Buffum got centerstage in the most Tex-Mex flavored numbers, cellist Henna Chou bolstering the lows in tandem with the eclectically textured drumwork of Grupo Fantasma’s Jeremy Bruch. Mexican heavy psych titan Adrian Quesada played guitar, finally getting to cut loose with some toothsome metal on his Telecaster after many uneasily jangly southwestern gothic moments.

Was Villa a man of the people, a careless womanizer, an avenger archetype getting even for hundreds of years of conquistador evil…or a smalltime bandito hell-bent on the bigtime? At the very end, Cass reveals that all of the above and more may be only a small part of a very complex character who’s no less controversial almost a hundred years later. As this version of the story goes, Villa’s almost stubborn inability to read people translated to a series of increasingly poor alliances that eventually cost him his life. 

The title of the suite – Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance – is sarcastic to the extreme. It’s reference to how the El Paso Hotel Del Norte advertised its comfortable rooftop picnic area as the best vantage point in town for watching the carnage going down across the river. The concluding performance is tonight at 7:30; if you are a fan of history or artsy, ornate 70s rock, you would be remiss to miss it.