Orkesta Mendoza are connoiseurs of noir. A lot of what’s lurking in the shade of that big black umbrella takes its origins from the Balkans, Romany and Jewish music, notably hi-de-ho jazz and its descendants in ghoulabilly and elsewhere. But a lot of noir comes from south of the border. For bandleader/guitarist/keyboardist Sergio Mendoza, none of those styles are off limits: slithery mambos, funereal boleros and towering, angst-fueled, cinematic rancheras, to name a few. He and his sizzling band – which can vary in size from a six-piece to a full orchestra – take those styles and mash them up into stampeding, lushly and exhilaratingly arranged psychedelic rock. They’re playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors, out back in Damrosch Park on July 29 at 7 PM. You should get there early if you want a seat.
The group’s most recent New York appearance was last year at South Sttreet Seaport, with a roughly ten-piece lineup including a horn section. Mendoza’s songs, whether originals or covers, tend to be expansive and go on for sometimes ten minutes or more – they redeem the concept of a jamband. This time out, in roughly forty-five minutes onstage, there wasn’t time for a lot wild improvisation, altough the group made those moments count. Mendoza played mostly acoustic guitar, shifting to the organ for just a single number. The star of this particular show was lapsteel player Joe Novelli, who played with a searing, chromatically-fueled fury. This wasn’t western swing – it was el diablo del desierto teleported from the netherland where Ambrose Bierce disappeared.
Baritone saxophonist Marco Rosano also distinguished himself and played keys on a couple of songs as well – lots of guys in this band double on several instruments. The most haunting song of the afternoon was Dulce Amor, a menacing bolero sung with drama and passion by Mexican cult favorite crooner Salvador Duran. Another similarly ominous, more upbeat minor key number was Mambo Mexicano, a springboard for several sizzling solos from throughout the band.
There was also a pricelessly hilarious moment. After the bass player led the group into a slinky psychedelic cumbia groove, Mendoza began it in English. It didn’t have much in the way of lyrics, and it turned out to be just a one-chord jam – but the band made it interesting. And when they got to the chorus, when Mendoza deadpanned “Don’t tell me that you love me,” it turned out that this was a Fleetwood Mac cover, Tusk, the 1979 hit that might be the most soporific song ever to reach the top 40. Fewer people in the crowd than you might expect got the joke – then again, 1979 was a long time ago, and it’s not likely that number gets a lot of corporate radio airplay anymore. For their last song, the group brought up whirlwind accordionist Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica – who’d opened the afternoon with his band – raising the energy several notches. The only drawback about this show was that it was relatively short, but at Lincoln Center, artists typically get about a full hour onstage.