It is about 1 am Saturday morning. I've been played like a violin, taken on an emotional and spiritual ride that has pushed me like no other, and I got nuthin'. And this blog isn't about me if I don't share this experience. So here goes - a description of what shook me to the core of my being.
First, some background. Understand, I'm a musician. I've played before thousands in groups big and small and, on occasion, solo. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was playing Austin clubs. Liberty Lunch, Joe's Generic, etc. I continued playing while in college. It was mostly rock in high school, and branched out into jazz afterwards. Now, it isn't currently my vocation, but for a time, it was a huge part of my life, and music has always meant a lot to me.
And additionally, I was blessed with the opportunity to lead supporters groups for both the local Dallas professional soccer team for ten years and the US Mens National Team in two World Cups as well as numerous qualification matches leading up to them - most often playing snare in a samba band or with other musicians. When you tie in music to the emotion and passion of sports at that level, mixed in with samba and other Latin influences in the stands, on the field and in the music, those were some of the most intense moments of my life. Playing samba, surrounded by hundreds of fans, on the storied Cotton Bowl concourse in celebration of a Dallas win? A full stadium in Kaiserslautern, Germany, with 10,000 of my closest friends as the US played the eventual World Cup champions to a stalemate down to nine men? "Implausible Dreams" indeed.
My tastes in some ways are very sporadic, but in others very similar. "The only thing I'll ever ask of you - you've got to promise not to stop when I say when." Be it Metallica and Rage Against the Machine or Adagio for Strings, make it passionate, make it intense, make it have meaning. As a musician, I appreciate technical ability, but really appreciate someone who not only has technical ability but also is very expressive. Jimi Hendrix comes to mind as probably the best example I can come up with to illustrate that idea.
One of the musicians I have the highest respect for is Stevie Ray Vaughn, and not just because he was from my hometown of Austin and played Texas blues, but rather because he played it with a level of soul that few have ever matched.
And for perspective, I've seen Texas guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson up close and personal - in a room of 150, from about ten feet away. (If you like Texas music, or enjoy quality guitar work, and haven't listened to Eric Johnson, do so.) I've seen great acts like U2, The Police, Metallica, Linkin Park and The Cure, as well as SRV. I've seen great technical acts like Yes, Rush, Stuart Hamm, along with Eric. I've seen emotional acts like NIN, Alanis Morrisette, Indigo Girls, James Taylor, Tori Amos. I've seen legends - Jimmy Paige, Eddie Van Halen, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty.
I say that so you understand the context in which I make these statements. I've been in the presence of - and that close to - greatness before.
Friday night, at the legendary Austin venue, Antone's, I heard an act that blew away any previous musical experience I have ever had: Passion at levels way beyond what I was emotionally ready for. Musicianship and technical skill that I have rarely been exposed to, despite my thirst for music at that level. A synchronicity on stage that you see only in the greatest of acts, the ones who have played together for years, who have overcome all the maturation issues that a band faces when breaking through. "I can't pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend" and all that.
To set the scene a bit more, we were there because Janice's friend, Else Maria, "knew" the band personally and said they were pretty good. Actually, she said she was going and she thought it would be great if we came along. In my mind, I was expecting a pretty good Austin band, like so many others that were talented and skilled, able to play to a crowd well enough to sell a few CDs, waiting for a big record company to notice that the next ZZ Top or Stevie Ray Vaughn was out there, ready to explode on the scene. I mean, it was Antone's after all - you usually don't get slouches in there.
To add to the scene, the earlier act was blues legend Pinetop Perkins. Thirty minutes before the act we came to see took the stage, we were in a packed crowd in THE Austin blues bar, listening to a 95-year-old, graveled-voice blues master. That alone was worth the price of admission. I mean, it was Antone's after all. So while I probably should have been a bit more ready for the quality of the act, I wasn't really paying attention to the signs and portents coming at me. I was frankly just happy to be back in Austin for the holidays, that Janice and my family were getting along, and that we had gotten a chance to meet up with Elsa - someone Janice doesn't see very often but they are very close. The fact that we were in Antone's, getting ready to hear from a band that Elsa Maria knew - always a cool experience.
By the chorus of the first song, they had my attention - way more than what I was expecting. Talented, engaging, passionate....
By the end of the second song, I admitted my surprise to Janice's friend.
By the fifth song, I was asking Janice's friend, "Are you ******* kidding me?!?!?!?"
And when it was all over, I was completely drained. I had been wrung dry, pushed and pulled beyond my envelope of experience. Me, the guy who always wanted more, needed passion in excess - drained.
Who was this act?
Del Castillo, a Latin Rock group from Texas that I found out was amazing anyone who heard them.
To be fair, note that I have always loved classical guitar - the sound and feel of nylon strings rather than steel. And the passion and intensity of Latin music, and the true sense of home that comes with Texas music, has always had a very special place in my heart. I love Texas - its land, its people, its culture - and I think a big part of what makes Texas special is the influence that Mexican and other Latin culture has had in shaping what makes Texas what it is. Throw in the friends and friendships and resulting experiences I've had through soccer (one of the major reasons why I left practicing as an attorney to work for the local Major League Soccer team, FC Dallas), and it is safe to say that I was ripe to be impressed by this group.
I would also say that things like the Gypsy Kings, Los Lobos and Paco de Lucia have always impressed me, but also left me with a sense of "they could do more with that." Even Santana - a band who has done very impressive things with Latin music - has sometimes left me thinking that there was more ground to cover. And not necessarily musically, but that you could add more of a rock element to drive it home, if you will.
But oh my. After Friday night, I am left wanting no more. What an expression of life through music!
As I describe my impressions of the musicians, bear in mind, they are just that: impressions. I don't know them personally - this is just the sense I got from the front row at Antone's Friday night. "One fellow's opinion" and all that.
The Del Castillo brothers - Mark and Rick - are the guitarists, and they are phenomenally talented. And not just in terms of speed or technique. Anyone can play fast and furious. (Well, not anyone, but you know what I mean.) But they use the full range of dynamics - soft, loud, fast, slow, simple, complex, traditional or avant garde.
They alone are worth the price of admission. I was constantly amazed by their solos and how they shaped the music, every moment trying to drink in every note (even at breakneck speed) but also hungering for more. I probably had more than I could handle by their first break, but obviously wasn't going anywhere until they finally called it quits after over two hours.
The key? Every note (and silence) had MEANING. It dripped with intensity, passion, life. And it was at a speed I wasn't expecting, so I never really caught up, emotionally.
And on top of it all, they were having a blast! I've never seen musicians smile so much while playing such intense music for so long. And they have a youthful exuberance that just screams how wonderful life is and can be.
But those are the guitarists. On top of that you have the singer, Alex Ruiz. Imagine Robert Plant, Jim Morrison and Perry Farrell mixed into one, and then give him the same passion, Latin and South Texas perspective that the guitarists bring to the show, but with an added touch of grit. His face, and his singing, is lined with experience. I remember k.d. lang once saying in an interview that, "We're only as deep as what is carved into us" and Alex's singing drips with that sense of reality. When he sings about brotherhood or forgiveness, you get the sense that he has walked the dark sides of those streets and his words have real meaning - belief in the face of reality, rather than naive, blind faith in the goodness of life.
And then there is the rhythm section. We are talking about Latin music, remember? The bassist, Albert Besteiro, is as rock-solid a bass player as I have ever seen, playing those deep, full, rhythmic bass lines that drive the bus that is rock music. And he does it all the while the engine that drives the activity on stage. He is always smiling, always engaging with either other musicians or stage hands or fans. Everyone is his best friend and he makes sure they are all having a blast. His notes were as aggressive as could be without taking center stage or overshadowing the other musicians, and even if he had just stood there, stoically playing the part, I would have been impressed - although it probably wouldn't have had the life that came off the stage.
And then there is the drummer. Last, but by no means the least, Mike Zeoli was the thumping heart that pounded its way throughout the night. Make no mistake, while this is most definitely Latin music, it is also definitely rock, and I'd kill to see Zeoli play anything from Led Zepplin to Metallica. (They actually slipped in what sure sounded to me like four measures of "One" for good measure, and it was a very cool touch.) Not only am I confident he could pull it off, but he could bring his own energy to it. That should give you the scope of what was sitting behind the kit. They had someone else playing some other percussion bits - unfortunately, I can't remember his name (if someone knows it, comment and I'll add it), but he also brought a lot to the table. But clearly, it was an added layer that raised the bar rather than helping Zeoli fill any gaps in his play. Oh, and I was pretty sure I sensed influences of Neil Peart in some of Zeoli's solos - which I'm sure you know warmed my heart.
As for the songs - Each had its own feel - not the over-consistency you get from some artists trying to "define themselves" - yet there was a definite style above and beyond the fact that you had a set instrumentation and a somewhat consistent placement of the back-beats. And it was so refreshing to see a band not bat an eye at long, involved solos in almost every song - and that each solo had its own presence. Again, like the songs themselves, each had their own nuances and differences, but were definitely "their own."
The nice thing I found on the way home listening to the CD - enough of the feel from the solos and the concert makes it to the album. Obviously, they couldn't put all of the solo work on a studio album, but there is enough of it that you don't feel like the CD is a neutered version of the band. I got "Brotherhood", and if you want to check it out on iTunes, listen to the clip of Este Amor and you'll get a touch of Alex's singing and the brothers' guitar playing. If you get or have the album, I'd also throw in Arena Al Viento, Vida Latina and El Corrido De Don Lulai to get a sense of what assaulted me Friday night.
And the stage presence and showmanship? Again, I've seen The Police, U2, Metallica. I've seen bands who grab the audience by the throat - however gently or firmly - and take them for an emotional, passionate ride. Del Castillo (Wiki) is right there with the best of them. I mentioned the atmosphere on stage - like a band of brothers who have come to peace with themselves and enjoy each other's company. Well, they invite the audience into that same atmosphere, but with the added connection of the intensity of the music.
And then there are the times the musicians - especially the guitarists - going into the crowd while they play. For those who don't know Antone's there is a VIP area up some stairs to the left of the stage (from the audience's perspective). At one point, during one of his long, colorful solos, Mark walked up there and gave his wife a simple kiss on the cheek. The cool panache of the moment was most impressive, especially considering that the intensity never wavered. Both Mark and Rick took turns walking through the crowd during their solos, as did Alex from time to time, adding to the personal contact the band has with its audience.
The highlight of the night for me was about halfway through the second set. Mark was doing a solo and it was the first time he had wandered the crowd. Most of the crowd was standing, but there were a few tables set aside for VIPs. One of those were near me, and he walked up and sat down and there I was, leaning over his right shoulder, watching him play music that I had been trying to breath into my soul the whole night. Understand, I was overwhelmed with their music fifteen minutes into the show, so you can imagine how I now felt having better than literally a front row seat.
Eventually, the show was over. I was tired. I was sore. I was emotionally drained. And I loved it. I read up on them, and they are definitely on the radar screen of some people. They have been used for the soundtracks of Kill Bill, vol. II and Once Upon A Time In Mexico - not exactly small ventures. Will they make that jump to true stardom? I have no idea. But if they do, I think they will strike a chord with so many. I mean, if Gypsy Kings can get a hit, surely this band can do the same. And in my humble opinion, if they do, there may be no looking back.
Bear in mind - I'm not a music critic. I am relatively musically knowledgeable, but I'm not trained in the ways of critiquing a band. And I'm here sharing my personal experience, not here to give a critical analysis of their performance. And I certainly wasn't prepared for what I was about to experience.
But that being said, what I've seen of Del Castillo is enough that I will support them in the way that I support Rush. And as I've done here, I'll spread the word to anyone that they are a band worth listening to at least once - with the smiling "warning" that if it strikes a chord, it will strike hard. The last band I had that kind of insight about was Pearl Jam - before they had a single out on the radio or video.....
Del Castillo is the height of what music can be, especially in this vein - it IS Latin Rock - and most certainly capitalize that R.
"Vida Latina Amor" indeed.
For more on Kevin's takes on music, check out Chaotica.