The Latin Playboys' amalgam of grassroots musical craftsmanship and studio experimentalism puts them in a category outside of any other band making records today. The side project of Los Lobos singer/guitarist David Hidalgo and drummer Louie Perez, along with the dynamic duo of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (who've done producing chores for the likes of Cibo Matto, Soul Coughing and Los Lobos themselves) has thus far resulted in two albums of incredibly strange and incredibly beautiful music. In terms of sonic inventiveness, the only group one can compare the Playboys to is My Bloody Valentine. Like MBV, the Playboys create songs that are seemingly simple in their structure, but are densely layered with eerie guitars, fucked-up drumming and a whole symphony of atmospheric noise jammed in behind it.
I hate the way most music reviewers use long, fruity metaphors to describe the bands they're writing about, but since I have to fill this article up somehow, here goes. Latin Playboys' songs are a lot like the burritos I used to get when visiting my brother in San Francisco's Mission District. I ain't talkin' about no Taco Bell refried scoop of bean and lard paste in a cardboard tortilla burrito. These burritos were the size of a WCW wrestler's forearm and were stuffed to the gills with fresh vegetables, brown rice, red and black beans and came with a side order of salsa that could eat a hole through the ozone layer. They were so huge and overflowing with so much goodness that it was impossible to digest it all in one sitting. You always had to save half of it in the fridge for later. Man am I hungry. This is the perfect way to describe the Latin Playboys, since they too draw on a vast array of sounds and natural ingredients, stir in a whole lot of love and a little bit of spice to create music that is more than the sum of its parts.
As they took the stage at Tramps on April 15th, amid a small cosmos of multi-colored Christmas lights, they sprung the crowd from their alcohol-induced stupor with a tape loop of blaring trumpets off "Viva La Raza," from their self-titled debut album. When its hypnotic, psychedelic blues riff kicked in, I was amazed at how well they were able to recreate the tonal nuances of its 4-track album sound so well.
The same can be said for "Chinese Surprise" and "10 Believers" (also off their debut). It was a near note-for-note approximation of the narcotic-like keyboard flourishes, snarling guitar and off-kilter percussion heard on record.
"Mustard" off their new album Dose had a catchy, folky quality to it with an open, plucked guitar line that built to a country fiddle showdown between Hidalgo and opener Lisa Germano. They both seemed so natural and unselfconscious in their trade-offs it was as if they were performing on someone's back porch instead of in front of a packed crowd of fans.
After the somber "Cuca's Blues," they played "Ironsides," whose lyrics about a family going to see a drive-in movie spoken over a groove of electrified Mexican guitar made me immediately think of the Velvet Underground performing a more ethnic version of "The Gift." Since most of the band members have families of their own, it's no surprise that they were able to capture the plaintive, whining voice of the child narrating the story so well.
The dizzying "Paletero" followed, and for a full 10 minutes, the room was filled with a swirling, psychedelic fiesta that I can only compare to cracking open a piņata full of acid. The whole room, if not dancing, was involuntarily swaying to the song's beat which was equal parts mariachi band and '60s freak-out jam. After fully exhausting themselves, the band ended the song on a high note and quickly vanished from the stage.
They soon returned, and for their first encore, they played the new "Fiesta Erotica." Much more anticipated, however, was their groundbreaking older material, and the Playboys did not fail to please. "Crayon Sun," another tribute to the gleeful exuberance and innocence of childhood, was performed next. It was a top-notch rendition.
"If" was a drunken blues ode about betrayal as well as a subliminal commercial for hard liquor. As Hidalgo sang "If the Ocean was whiskey or full of gin Would you push me in," I noticed a sizable crowd head back to the bar for one last drink.
The last song from our Latin Playboy Playmates was "Forever Night Shade Mary Goodnight" and its dreamy, lullaby-ish vibe was perfect for sending the happy crowd home to their beds, as it was just rounding midnight.
All in all, I was quite impressed to find the skill with which the Playboys were able to recreate the difficult studio effects and soulful singing/musicianship on their records. After listening to their albums so many times at home, to finally witness this combination of mechanical perfection and organic musicality live was like seeing your favorite episode of The Love Boat played out on a Broadway Stage or seeing "Sesame Street on Ice" for the first time. Nah, come to think of it, nothing on this earth is like seeing "Sesame Street on Ice."