About a month ago, Café Tacuba played in front of 170,000 people in Mexico City's Zócalo, perhaps the biggest hometown send-off before a monthlong tour in music history. This unfathomably expansive throng sang along loudly, producing sound waves that likely caused window-rattling tremors in adjacent towns. During the ballads, fans raised their cell phones in lieu of lighters, producing a luminescent spectrum of blue, yellow and green.
"It was an emotional moment," bassist Quique Rangel says in a phone interview from Mexico City. "The heart of the city showed us love."
Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas, 713-230-1600
Saturday, July 9. Kinky and Maldita Vecindad are also on the bill.
Gigs at midsize venues (our 3,000-seat Verizon Wireless Theater ranks among the band's largest U.S. tour stops) might appear anticlimactic for a band with superstar-caliber credentials, including gold records and Grammys to its credit, but Rangel says the group looks forward to discovering the extent of its American following.
"What we have seen through the shows in the United States is that even if we don't know about it, there's a Latin crowd in every city," he says. "Mexican people are looking for something with their roots, and even if they don't know the band well, they go and try to have a celebration. They use it as a tool to have a party, to relax and decompress all the stress."
Café Tacuba's sets, as captured on the recent three-disc concert collection Un Viaje, create a festive environment by merging native sounds such as folkloric Spanish guitar, Latin polyrhythms and bossa-nova beats with every imaginable influence. The group plays industrial thrash, soulful ska, jagged rockabilly, scorching surf, harmonica blues, silky wa-wa funk and jangly jazz, then it starts blending those disparate elements, creating truly surreal hybrids. "Dejate Caer" plays like a Steely Dan/Depeche Mode mash-up, "La Chica Banda" combines anthemic pop with dirty disco like Big Country remixed by DFA, and "Eo" feels like a Clash concert interrupted by a circus on parade.
When Café Tacuba released its definitive records, 1994's Re and 2003's Cuatro Caminos, awestruck American critics scanned their memories for similarly eclectic acts. Some might have considered Mr. Bungle's California, an inspired amalgam of doo-wop, garage-rock, polka and psychedelic sounds, but recommending an eclectic, Spanish-singing act using a relatively obscure touchstone is a tough sell. So writers turned to likening Re to the Beatles' White Album and Cuatro Caminos to Radiohead's Kid A. (Cuatro's cover sticker bears this comparison, as printed in Alternative Press.)
It was a generous gesture, converting Café Tacuba's musical currency by using rock's gold standards, but it shortchanged the group. Tacuba might share an ambitious, adventurous nature with Radiohead, but it's essentially a good-times band whose joyous outbursts couldn't fall further from Kid A's chilly corporeal compositions. The Beatles had pure pop at their core, while Tacuba starts with traditional norteño, bolero and mariachi melodies.
When the band formed in 1989, uniting four graphic design students at Metropolitan Autonomous University, Café Tacuba emulated its American and British idols. Soon, though, its members realized that by aping the Pixies and the Smiths, they were muting their Mexican muse.
"We didn't have the sensibility to play as people from another culture," Rangel says. "We decided we must be who we are."
Initially, the group created a stir within the Mexican music community. Purists bristled at what they interpreted as ironic interpretations of sacred song structures.
"There was some controversy, but music evolves that way," Rangel says. "We treat the roots music in the most serious possible way, but we play with the elements. If it produces something different, we don't question that."
Very little changes when Café Tacuba plays American shows. The band doesn't shorten its marathon three-hour sets unless a venue's curfew forces its hand. The members don't sing in English, though charismatic front man Ruben Albarran does translate his frequent banter. The jovial Albarran has changed his liner-notes moniker for every album (on Un Viaje, he's Sizu Yantra; previously he was known as Elfego Buendia), his response to fans mistakenly calling him Pinche Juan ("Johnny Rotten") after a track of that name appeared on the band's debut disc. That's the sort of story he charmingly conveys during instrumental interludes.
"We try to involve the Anglo audience by presenting the ideas about the songs in English," Rangel says. "We want to make the people feel comfortable."
Stateside crowds have done their best to return the favor. Café Tacuba appeared at Coachella this year, after attending in the past as paying customers.
"We saw so many bands we admire," Rangel says. "And we got to play, too, which is, like, an incredible bonus."
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At Coachella and other U.S. tour stops, listeners que no hablan español have started crooning along with Albarran's irresistible choruses, mimicking the strings of syllables even if they don't understand the words.
"What an incredible thing to hear," says Rangel, who maintains that it all sounds the same on stage, pronunciation nuances disappearing in the din.
In some ways, the members of Café Tacuba form an impressively uncompromising outfit. They're staunch about singing solely in Spanish, and they shift styles significantly on each album. (On Cuatro Caminos, for example, they used live drums for the first time.) Yet the band is also as accessible as experimental acts get, toning down sets if they feel the audience might be intimidated. They decorate their material with soccer-style chants, providing fans with an arena-rock interactive exercise that makes their manic genre-jumping feel less jarring.
"It's for the people, not only for the band," Rangel says. "Sometimes it's happened to me that I see a show and the band is playing for itself. This is a different approach. People can go there to feel happy."