Also see my preview article, “Los Tigres del Norte to make history at Walt Disney Concert Hall,” published in the Los Angeles Times.
Los Tigres del Norte plays at the same venues that host rodeos, professional bull riders and country fairs. So its show last Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall offered the band an opportunity for a new musical presentation, perhaps toning down its usual boisterous style. The performance marked the first time a regional Mexican band has appeared at the venue since it opened in 2003.
For some LA music lovers, Disney Hall symbolizes the ultimate concert venue for formal musical styles – an ideal place to wear that new Armani suit or snap on the diamonds.
Other music fans enjoy dressing down. These folks may enjoy hearing their music stadium style, clutching beer bottles and singing along with the band. There’s a chance that these arena folks love Spanish-language music just as much, or maybe more, than the good old American songs. The Spanish songs tell stories of life on both side of the border between the United States and Mexico. The stories are often about poverty, feelings of exclusion and homesickness and worry that the government is only making life worse for everyone. Stories of death and despair are matched by stories of rebirth and hope.
Is this the way we would like to design the culture of city? With exalted music in the architecturally spectacular halls and familiar, danceable rhythms in stadiums on the outskirts of the city? Then again, is Disney Hall really the best place to enjoy a concert by Los Tigres del Norte? The concert was programmed by the series “Global Pop at the Music Center,” a three-year-old program that aims for its concerts to represent LA’s immigrant community. The series is largely funded by Blue Ribbon, an organization founded in 1968 by Dorothy Chandler. According to one spokesperson, the concerts aim to remind people that Disney Hall is “much more than classical music.”
But what did Global Pop and Blue Ribbon really hope to accomplish? Did they hope to empower the Latino immigrant community by presenting a Mexican regional performance at a world-class concert hall? Did they hope Los Tigres would expand their audience to include regular attendees of Disney Hall?
All of these questions lurked in the air when Los Tigres took the stage.
Certainly, Los Tigres, consummate professionals, adapted to the Disney Hall stage with the ease and showmanship suited as much to Carnegie Hall as a local arena, stadium or backyard barbeque. These tigers are the epitome of class, experience and dedication to their audiences. And, let’s not overlook their other attributes. Imagine the perfect smile accentuated by dimples. Snug suits that fit just right (for this occasion, navy blue with a cactus and Mexican flag theme, plus hundreds of sequins). The guys exuded confidence, machismo and at the same time, humility and a genuine appreciation of their fan base. The audience radiated enthusiasm, singing the lyrics to each song. Many ran to take the stage to pose for a photo with Los Tigres, who always obliged, giving each person a kiss on the cheek.
Yet the performance wasn’t entirely smooth or polished. The warm personality of Los Tigres was largely hidden by the volume of its microphones. The sound was so amped up that it seemed to emanate from speakers and not people. Meanwhile, despite being immersed in Disney Hall’s subtle curves and large but unassuming size, Los Tigres used enough bravado and energy to play to the end of a football field. Anyone not familiar with the group might have been confused at best and put-off at worst.
After the first bunch of songs, Los Tigres played in response to song requests brought to the stage from various audience members. Although the crowd seemed to find this endearing, the feeling of chaos that ensued may have had a better effect in a more casual setting. Scraps of white paper piled up on the stage and floated down from the balconies, so that having Los Tigres collect all of them began to look like a game. With each scrap that appeared, it seemed like the concert would continue until each request was fulfilled. But there was no reason to doubt that the Tigres would perform their big hits, mostly toward the end of the show, regardless of audience requests. (It might not be a stretch – or too cynical – to imagine the manager advising, “You gotta have a gimmick.”)
One might have expected Los Tigres to reach out to a new audience, and they might have been disappointed that Los Tigres performed to an already worshipful fan base. Speaking and singing only in Spanish, the group geared its comments and song choices to fans. Perhaps this is why a large handful of people emptied half the orchestra seats in an hour.
Meanwhile, the “Orchestra view” seats were entirely vacant, and the “Terrace east” and “Terrace west” balconies were none too full. It’s ironic that Los Tigres regularly play sold-out stadiums but couldn’t fill 2265-seat Disney Hall. Was it the prices, which ranged from $39 – $129? The challenge of getting to Downtown L.A.? Poor marketing? Despite the empty seats, Los Tigres are known for supplementing audience enthusiasm with prerecorded cheering and applause; it sure sounded like a full house.
The most unusual moment of the evening occurred when Ry Cooder, with a striking absence of fanfare, joined Los Tigres on the stage for a couple of numbers. The musician, composer and producer is best known to American audiences for reviving the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club. He recently produced a recording collaboration with Los Tigres and the Chieftains.
Before Cooder could leave the stage, a Blue Ribbon spokesperson entered the stage with a massive bouquet of tiger lilies. There seemed to be some confusion as she tried to present the flowers to Los Tigres and Cooder, probably because she didn’t speak Spanish. She had, however, dressed for the occasion in blue jeans, plaid blouse, cowboy hat and boots. Finally, the flowers were accepted and the group took a bow. Perhaps it was a photo-op bringing Mexicans, Anglos and an enormous flower arrangement together on the stage. Or perhaps it was a genuine cross-cultural moment. If so, it was the only one all evening.