We have all been to pop-up concerts. You know, you get a poster on Instagram or Twitter with a date, place, names of bands. The place is often in a sketchy part of the city, but what the hell, there will be lots of people there.
I got a poster last week for a CD release party for Cusi Coyllur, a group I did not know. But I did know the intro band, ¡APARATO!, headed up by my friend Alexandro D. Hernandez and fronted by the very talented Nancy Mendez. I have known and followed ¡APARATO! for three years and go to their shows – which involve masks and bandanas and punk rock played on traditional Mexican instruments– whenever I can. So i pulled up the address on Google Maps and was immediately confused.
The location was described as the Rec on East 11th street in the LA Arts District, but Google told me the Rec was on a different street blocks away. For those of you who don’t know LA, it is turning abandoned factories and warehouses into art galleries, restaurants and music venues – like many other cities. This is happening in an area known as the Arts District, between Skid Row and the LA River, and is still spotty. In some parts there are thriving clubs and restaurants and on weekend nights throngs of people and Ubers and Lyfts lined up 10 deep as music blasts out of clubs and speakers on gourmet food trucks. This address was not in one of those parts.
Google Street View showed the address as a dingy salmon-grey two-story building with barred windows and a For Lease sign flanked by a couple of auto repair shops and across the street from sound equipment installation factory. Since this is did not look promising I asked my friend, singer-songwriter Alicia Blue who once lived near the Arts District, to come and help navigate. She did and when we arrived there was a door open in the building. A friendly young woman sat inside with a smile and a cash box. Five dollars each bought us entry to a dark staircase that led to what looked like a small-parts assembly floor converted into a photo studio – the Rec. A couple of merch tables and piles of music equipment bags lined the walls, a stage occupied one end the room with a half dozen musicians and even more microphones, flanked by speaker stacks. A sound engineer sat on a stool in the back and struggled to run the forest of stage mics through a very small mixing board (he was successful) .
The artists onstage were Cusi Coyllur, which included founder Shannen Roberts on a 88 keyboard, three black-clad women who looked and played like they could have been from the LA Phil’s string section (Koi Anunta of Koi’s Music Project, Phoebe Ping and Kari Krafft of the Sunset StringsLA Quartet ). Sam Sobo on the drums, Hunter Craig on bass. Three backup singers lined up stage left to complete the mic check before the warm up band started its mic check.
By the time ¡APARATO! plugged in, the room was full-packed, and the crowd was ready for fun. Nancy Mendez and the gang onstage gave it to them in spades. Melodic, funny, high energy punk rock in Spanish and English rolled off the stage. ¡APARATO! , which has been acclaimed on NPR and charted in NPR’s Top 100, is an amalgam like no other. Known as a “jarocho punk” band, they are so much more. Their lyrics tell of the struggles of poor and migrant peoples but their music is electronic and acoustic beats, futuristic sci-fi sounds and costumes, and stage antics that pull laughter and dancing from any crowd. .
¡APARATO! plays centuries-old Mexican instruments along with the electric guitar and bass, MPC 1000, and electric and acoustic drums. They were masked as usual, except for Nancy who wore a silver space-suit cape and silver space boots. The three men wore black with lightning bolt bandanas over their faces. They also all have band aliases and stay in character while they play. Bassist/keyboard player Moises Baqueiro danced and jigged while Nancy (stage name Cat) lay on the dance floor in the center of an adoring crowd and played the requinto at blinding speed. Band co-founder Hernandez kept the music authentic as he rotated instruments including the electric guitar ,jarana, requinto, and acoustic guitar. Off stage, he is Dr. Hernandez, PhD, a lecturer in Ethnomusicology at UCLA and a noted producer.
Cusi Coyllur took the stage, led by singer/musician/founder Shannen Roberts, who has put her years of classical piano training to good use in unique, complex exploratory melodies supporting lyrics around the topics of domestic abuse and mental health awareness. To some, her music sounds like experimental jazz, although she prefers to call it experimental punk, if it has to be in a genre. Whatever you call it, you can’t forget it.
She introduced the dancer, Alex Floyd, founder of the LA-based OdDancity, who interpreted Cusi’s music by moving and bending through songs from the new EP Bipolar Lovers in Love. Songs like “amivulnerable” and the haunting” Woke Up From A Lazy Dream” swirled around the packed floor as Alex writhed and twisted to the notes. Shannen took us through a musical journey of exquisite piano chops and vocal gymnastics that matched the rainbow colored lights spinning on the rooms back wall.
Despite the joyful sound and company and the venue which worked surprisingly well, the night went far beyond my bedtime (since I had an early start the next morning, that was not really very late) but the experience was moving, to say the least. From the humor-laced defiant songs and musical virtuoso of ¡APARATO! to the deep emotional impact of Shannen Roberts and Cusi Coyllur, there was much to think about as Alicia and I stepped out to the screech and grind of the machinery in the still-open factory across the street.