Mexican authenticity meets crass American commercialism at Fruitvale's annual Día de los Muertos celebration: Spider-Man balloons, tilt-a-whirl rides, and funnel cakes mingle uneasily with sugared skulls and votive candles. For every blanket-weaver or old-world craftsman, you'll find twenty young entrepreneurs hawking real estate, imitation designer sunglasses, or plastic skeleton curios.
This year, by 11 a.m. that late October morning, the sun shone greasily on the awnings of taco trucks and the reflective sides of BART trains, and everyone's hair gel glimmered like waxed chrome. Hulky reggaetón bass beats and banda horns reverberated from a small flotilla of vans advertising La Kalle 100.7 FM, and the swath of International Blvd. between 41st Avenue and Fruitvale already teemed with guys drinking Corona from paper bags, parents pushing strollers and swatting their toddlers with copies of El Observador, and girls sporting T-shirts satirizing popular product logos -- "Ni Entiendo" instead of "Nintendo," "Stay Brown, Chicanas" instead of "Starbucks." And by the 37th Avenue stage, a small cluster of kids with labret piercings and dishwater bleach jobs patiently awaited the Latino punk outfit La Plebe, scheduled to perform sometime before noon.
An hour passed. The five members of La Plebe killed time in their van, slogging through several six-packs of Tecate. A doddering old man tried to hit on an attractive female security guard with little success, given that she couldn't comprehend the phrase Quiero una esposa. Everyone else just waited, drinking $7 lemon daiquiris to stay hydrated.
The crowd had nearly tripled by the time La Plebe took the stage, more than an hour and a half behind schedule. Fortunately, the diehards who'd waited that long -- including three or four really hot band girlfriends -- were gracious, and the thrilling show justified everyone's patience. The band ripped through a dozen songs -- mostly taken from 2005's Entre Cerveza, Ritmo, y Emoción, including a sped-up, boisterous cover of the Pogues' "Dirty Old Town," and a feminist number called "Enfadada" ("Fed Up") sung from the perspective of a woman who's been raped by her lover. La Plebe's singer/bassist frontman, Lupe Bravo, barked all the lyrics (mostly in Spanish, though it's hard to tell) in a traditional hardcore style, i.e. a raving, primordial growl that would've been terrifying were it not swaddled in Mark T. Harris' raucous drumming, Adam Paganini's high-reverb guitar, and clamorous horn riffs by Antonio Cuéllar (trombone) and his brother Alberto (trumpet).
Between numbers, Lupe enjoined his fans to dance, prompting several Encino Man-ish guys to form an ungainly moshpit, albeit nowhere near as reckless as the ones La Plebe inspires during SF warehouse shows at Balazo 18 Gallery or Bindlestiff Studio. The hot girlfriends tapped their patent leather shoes and sang along with the choruses. Meanwhile, the attractive security guard wore a tired, bemused expression at first, but by set's end, she was tapping her toes, too.
The show ended abruptly and without fanfare; ignoring their fans' pleas for ¡Otra! ¡Una más!, the Plebians started unplugging their gear while the last chord still resonated. Lupe got on the mic and said something in Spanish that must've meant "Sorry dude, that's all you're gonna get," as though the idea of performing an encore had never occurred to him. But it's typical of La Plebe to arrive and leave so abruptly. These guys didn't get into the hardcore punk racket with aspirations of fame or crowd adoration. Granted, having a sense of humility is vital in a scene with such populist ideals -- this is hardcore, after all, where lusting for success or even giving people what they want is tantamount to selling out.
Lupe, Antonio, Alberto, and Mark (then in their mid-to-late twenties) formed La Plebe in 2001 with a different guitarist, mostly as an excuse to jam and drink beer several nights a week. Four years hence, these guys still don't take themselves too seriously. Rehearsals can last up to six hours and include a good deal of socializing; by the end of the night, their tiny Mission District studio is permeated with acrid vapors that include nicotine, weed, chicken wings, sweat, stale Tecate ... and maybe some others you don't want to know about. For all their vices, though, the Plebians seem very principled and idealistic. Their shared sense of Latino pride suffuses their music to the point of being ostentatious, though never quite obnoxious. La Plebe is really a puddle of influences -- the product of kids who grew up playing in garage bands and listening to all types of music; if you come to their studio you'll hear everything from rock-steady to norteño to thrash shuffling on the iPod ("everything except punk with horns," jokes Alberto). The band's emphasis on sped-up guitar lines, machine-gun percussion, and guttural vocals makes their music sound a lot like the Minor Threat-inspired hardcore bands that might have graced 924 Gilman in the '80s and '90s, except that the horn section gives them a more world-ish sound.
"Our music is pretty aggressive -- we don't really do the mainstream stuff," Antonio explains. "Whether we want to or not, it just doesn't really happen." He adds that everyone generally feels closer spiritual ties to Mexico than the United States, because "Mexico is more urban. There's more working-class repression and more angst. Here, everyone is more pop-oriented and commercial."
These may sound like typical populist bromides, but the trombonist's preoccupation with his motherland obviously has personal dimensions, too -- especially when you consider the dude's singular passion for Mexican music. Antonio is currently digitizing the entire collection of Mexican 78s at Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito, a project that his brother launched with the help of a UCLA grant after he found out that Arhoolie's owner has the largest collection of vintage Mexican-American music in the world, including songs with roots in the 15th century.
The members of La Plebe embrace their Latino identity with a fervor that would almost seem fetishistic, if their music didn't sound so earnest and heartfelt. Alberto has a portrait of Che Guevara tattooed across his chest, and long, spindly ears of corn running up his arms -- a tribute to his grandfather, a Mexican farmer who "spent his whole life thinking about corn." Lupe's right bicep bears an intricate tattoo of a Mayan hieroglyph for the God of duality. The frontman says it's the indigenous symbol that best describes his personality, not only in the sense of being Latino and bilingual, but in a lifestyle sense, too: Lupe's an elementary school substitute teacher by day, and haunts underground punk warehouses by night.
That underground punk scene has hit hard times in the past two years, with the dissolution of such beloved bands as Eskapo and Monterey's Flojos nos Visten, not to mention the demise of traditional all-ages venues like Mission Records and Oakland's iMusicast, although Richmond's Burnt Ramen managed to resurrect itself this year. This volatility is tough to deal with, given that hardcore generally caters to an audience of gloomy-and-doomy teenagers. Antonio says places like Mission and iMusicast "were one of the major points for us, as far as having a stable underground. I mean, you can play five days a week, but they're gonna be bar shows. It's hard for underaged people to get in."
In fact, compared to the Bay Area (a land of hard-nosed bureaucrats, red tape, and worst of all, a drinking age of 21), Mexico was paradise, a whirligig ride from one grimy underground warehouse to another. On a recent Wednesday night, the members of La Plebe sit in their studio drinking Tecate and smoking weed out of a bent-up can (this constitutes a good chunk of the night's band practice, per usual), swapping memories of this summer's Mexican tour. Gallivanting through Mexico City, Aguas Calientes, Guadalajara, and Tuluca -- just deep enough into the country to bypass all those nineteen-year-old UCSD brats who've shortened the name "Tijuana" to "TJ" and regard it as the last stop in Margaritaville -- they discovered a thriving underground. "The punk scene is stronger there because there's greater accessibility for youth, and the drinking age is eighteen," says Alberto, whose favorite memory of the trip was a warehouse party that was actually "kind of a death trap," more than a hundred people crowded into a building that looked like a parking garage. Lacking a bathroom, people just pissed in a corner.
Few Bay Area punk venues could match that supreme griminess; aside from 924 Gilman, the closest equivalent might be the Mission District's Balazo 18 Gallery, where La Plebe performed in early November. Aside from two couches and a merch table laden with free bagels and $2 beer, most of the club's floor is devoted to the moshpit, as terrifying as it is huge.
And when La Plebe takes the stage, it only gets worse, the kind of balls-out melee you'd see in a comic book: fists and legs zinging through the air, and bodies slamming into each other with a satisfying thwack. It's a fine sonic accompaniment to the strident horn section, Mark's rapid-fire drum breaks, and Lupe's snarling vocals. The set concludes with a new song, "La Posta," after which the band pulls the plug abruptly (all hardcore songs end abruptly), once again ignoring everyone's pleas for ¡Otra! ¡Una más! Lupe suddenly seems charming and unassuming -- he bids everyone good night as his bandmates unceremoniously pack up their equipment before the house lights even come on. Apparently, they could care less about stardom; they're probably looking forward to a long, slow weekend punctuated by Monday's rehearsal -- another night of chicken wings, cheap beer, and reminiscences of Mexico.
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