It’s a cop-out, but I’m blaming the public-school system for this one. Despite three freaking years of junior-high Spanish class (not to mention 11 hours in college) the only español I readily understood at this Valentine’s Eve concert was when the lady introducing accordionist Flaco Jiménez and bajo-sexto player Max Baca said the two had “chingos de Grammys.” Claro que si: Not only has Jiménez played with Doug Sahm, Willie Nelson, Los Lobos, Bob Dylan, and, with Baca, the Rolling Stones, he’s got five of those gramophone statuettes back at the house. And just last month Baca’s band Los Texmaniacs captured the Best Tejano Album award for Borders y bailes.
So chingos indeed, but though I could appreciate their delivery (English offers too few opportunities for harmonizing rolling R’s) the rest of what I managed to translate on the fly from songs such as “Mi Primer Amor” — scattered references to corazones y floras, mostly — doesn’t merit much discussion. As this was billed as “A Valentine’s Day Concert & Baile,” I assume the songs I couldn’t understand were lyrically in line with those I could.
The cover of “Together Again” ditches Buck Owens’s possibly delusional desperation and Tom Brumley’s tear-stained steel-guitar solo to become a pure celebration of reclaimed love, similar in tone to the closing encore, the Texas Tornados’ “(Hey Baby) Que Paso.” Other songs — a drastically improved version of Brooks & Dunn’s downtrodden “Neon Moon,” for example, or Jiménez’s own take on traditional German live-for-today plea “In Heaven There Is No Beer” — present a more complicated picture of romance. The title track from Dwight Yoakam’s 1988 album Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room (the original also featuring Jiménez) plays like a conjunto “Hey Joe,” with Jiménez’s accordion fulfilling the same duty as Hendrix’s guitar — punctuating a murder ballad with the betrayed hurt and self-hatred the narrator’s become too detached to feel. Bassist Ruben Lopez sings both “Noches” and “Moon” in a more than passable country croon, though he undercuts both songs’ somber tones with occasional panther growls.
But this is a party, after all, and so few people are dancing not because of the emotional ambiguity, but because of the chill. A few move their feet but mostly just to shift from side to side, and many more sit huddled, some bundled in blankets, in camp chairs or along Main Plaza’s few stone steps. The band beats the cold by passing a flask. “Ay yi yi,” said Jiménez after taking a swig.
“It’s just lemonade,” Baca said.
“Yeah, right,” Jiménez countered.
The one thing that’s never lost in translation is how incredibly talented Jiménez and Baca are. The two swap solos like they’ve each got a garage-full to spare. Baca can make the bajo sexto sound like an electric guitar’s hairy-chested big brother, and Jiménez taps the keys like he’s typing War and Peace at Kerouac’s pace. He’s shredding, basically, and the unbridled joyous noise, something like a fiddle and organ playing simultaneously in perfect time and tune, is enough to banish all thoughts of feathered caps and Steve Urkel permanently from your mind.
Jiménez passes the accordion to Texmaniac David Farias, who plays a couple of Borders y bailes tracks and proves the tradition Jiménez was so essential in popularizing is still alive and evolving (as did the students from Conjunto Heritage Taller, who opened and thanked Jiménez between practically every song) but onstage nobody tops Jiménez, who turns 71 March 11 sliding his fingers across the keys and squeezing so much intensity from his accordion you could practically mosh to it. You can see where Piñata Protest’s Alvaro Del Norte, half of one of the few couples dancing, got the idea. — Jeremy Martin