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Concert Review: Outernational’s Spirited Sound

Outernational is back from performing in Tijuana. “That’s a big deal for us, crossing the border that way!” shouts lead singer Miles Solay in the band’s performance at The Echo on May 1. Everything that emerges from Solay’s mouth is loud — yells, screeches, proclamations — as if he can’t contain his energy. He also has a habit of stretching his words into a drawl to sound like Bob Dylan, or maybe Woody Guthrie. Although his band’s music is more punk rock than folk, these two legends have influenced Outernational’s attitude and music, which demands improved rights for all, especially immigrants. Hence, the delight at travelling from the U.S. to Mexico. Outernational believes in a world devoid of borders, where humans belong to the globe rather than a single country. The group’s newest album, “Todos Somos Ilegales/We Are All Illegal,” examines the plight of recent immigrants living in the U.S.

You might not realize all that, however, if you show up without having heard the excellent album. Even when Solay blasts his lungs with air, his voice is difficult to make out. The lyrics are indecipherable. His band – two guitarists, a drummer and a keyboard player – overwhelms The Echo with sound. The audience, which is small enough to move around easily, doesn’t seem to mind. (Maybe thanks to the well-stocked bar.) I walk from one side of the room to the other, seeking out the best spot in relation to stage and speakers. I notice young, stylish girls sipping cocktails. A handful of bulky guys jumping up and down to the beat. A grey-haired woman singing along to every song. A guy wearing a “Latin Alternative Music Conference” t-shirt who says he’s attended every rock en espanol concert in L.A. in the past 30 years. The USC professor and Latin music scholar Josh Kun with Tijuana-born musician Ceci Bastida, who sings on the album. Also Thom Russo, the 16 Grammy-award-winning producer who helped mix the album and appears thrilled to see Outernational in a rollicking live show. All are united under a spinning disco ball in an unassuming venue in Echo Park on a warm spring night.

But this isn’t just any night. This is May Day – Worker’s Day. And the struggle of the worker is the struggle of the immigrant. Earlier, Solay, guitarist Leo Mintek, bassist Jesse Williams Massa and drummer Nate Hassan had expressed solidarity by visiting and performing at a recycling plant. Then they joined the downtown L.A. protest and march led by immigrant rights groups and Occupy L.A. The band later summoned enough energy to give a raucous, energetic show. Bathed in green and red lights, the group performs their album’s most rousing anthem-like tracks — “The Beginning is Here,” “Welcome to the Revolution,” “Que Queremos” and “Fighting Song.” (During which one slightly-buzzed girl remarks, “This makes me feel like a happy sailor!”) Solay’s enthusiasm never flags. He runs in place, twirls, and leaps. He jogs to each musician, then back to the center. He thrusts his arms up, and points at the audience. (No wonder the guy has twigs for legs.) At one point, Solay twists the microphone cord around his neck and arm, as if trying to become one with the music.

It is when Outernational slows down that I find the most meaningful, enjoyable moments. The cover of Guthrie’s “Deportees” is striking with its calm beat and simple melody. “Ladies of the Night” follows, an ode to the many women of Ciudad Juarez who’ve gone missing. Most have turned up dead, casualties of Mexico’s drug war violence. Solay sings, “These women and their little girls / Messengers of a whole new world.” His voice is fierce but also whiny. The result? An air of irreverence and defiance. Ceci Bastida takes to the stage next for “Canta El Río,” which she composed. Outernational remixed the song for “Todos Somos Illegales,” so this live performance is a rare chance to see a true collaboration. When Outernational finally leaves the stage, the audience demands more. “Otra! Otra!” they yell, employing the term known throughout Latin America as “encore!” After a final few songs, the band jumps off the stage. But they don’t disappear into a dressing room. Instead, Solay and the musicians chat with audience members, bestowing handshakes and hugs to friends and strangers alike. The music, the party, and Outernational’s struggle to spread their message of equality for all, continues.

Originally written for “Performance and Politics of the U.S.-Mexico Border” music class at Occidental College, spring 2012.

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