I took a somewhat ill-fated trip to Burlington, Vermont this past weekend to catch a concert at the Flynn Center: Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo‘s “Border Music” project. (I won’t bore you with the ill-fated parts of the trip, but if I ever start talking about going on a long bus journey again, please remind me of the time we broke down in rural New Hampshire in the dead of winter.)
I’m not entirely sure what “Border Music” is supposed to be, but judging from the music I heard that night, their definition seemed to be pretty fluid. There was a lot of Latin music – unsurprisingly, given Hidalgo’s background in Los Lobos and the Latin Playboys and Ribot’s Cubanos Postizos – but there were some other selections that were a little less clear on where they fit in to the concept. I’m sure that if I had a chance to ask, they would have had fascinating explanations of which borders those songs would be straddling.
The equipment on stage was intriguing me even before they started playing: two electric guitars, three acoustic guitars, a cello, and a ukelele. There was, needless to say, a lot of tuning going on throughout the set (along with the obligatory “we tune because we care!” jokes and one or two “shouldn’t we have roadies for this?” comments).
The setlist seemed to be mostly improvised, with the two performers taking turns to pick which song they wanted to play next. The first piece to be performed was one of Hidalgo’s picks, a song he did with the Latin Playboys called Manifold de Amour. It was a gorgeous start to the concert – Marc Ribot playing acoustic guitar, David Hidalgo picking out a bass line on the cello, both singing the single repeated verse: Voy a navegar / Al puerto del alma / Cruzando el mar / Hasta que llegaré
The internet informs me that the translation is something like: “I’m going to sail / to the port of the soul / crossing the sea / until I arrive.”
The next song was The Dying Cowboy, a song that Marc Ribot has recorded more than once – most recently on Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings album. He talked about his unusual arrangement of the song in an interview with the L.A. Times: “I was surprised at the dirgy, depressing, very non-cowboy chords of this version/arrangement. Pretty soon I figured out that I was misreading it (chalk up another one for Harold Bloom). In contemporary [musical] notation, a minus sign means minor chord; in the 30’s, it meant dominant 7th, a completely different vibe. But I liked it so much that I kept it minor, more or less threw out the original melody (ah, it’s good to be an American!) and turned it into a kind of free-jazz cowboy raga.” The “Border Music” interpretation of this was a haunting duet with two acoustic guitars and Ribot doing the vocals in a more-or-less spoken-word style. Really lovely.
The next couple of pieces were fairly predictable choices – a Los Lobos song called La Pistola y El Corazón and Fiesta en el Solar, an Arsenio Rodriguez song that Ribot recorded on one of his Cubanos Postizos albums. I sneaked a video recording of La Pistola just for you:
After this we got the first song choice that made me wonder exactly what sort of border this music was on: David Hidalgo sang a quite lovely version of Jim Reeves’ Put Your Sweet Lips Closer to the Phone. Marc Ribot switched from his acoustic guitar to his Fender Jaguar for this one, giving us our first taste of his electric guitar style (of which I happen to be a very big fan!).
Not to be outdone, the next song was a particularly strange one chosen by Marc Ribot – entitled Dos Traficantes (or “Two Traffickers”), it was a corrido that Marc had translated into English, about a couple of drug smugglers who dressed up in drag as a couple of nuns and had some unfortunate run-ins with the police. To give it just the right touch of slightly nostalgic melancholy, he played this one on the ukelele. He gave us a funny introduction to the song, saying it’s “kind of ambiguous, ’cause it has some happy parts and some sad parts, and which are which depends a lot on exactly how you see the geopolitical situation.” I got the distinct feeling he was morally on the side of the traffickers…
Ribot did another unusual Mexican song, this time sung in Spanish, entitled Rata de dos Patas, which I believe translates to “Two-legged Rat.” He translated some of the lyrics for us ahead of time so we would know what he was singing about – it’s basically a series of really nasty insults, presumably to a former lover. “Filthy rodent, despicable animal, scum of humanity,” that sort of thing. This one was a lot of fun, and he sang it with gusto and a lot of humor.
Hidalgo followed that one up with a Neil Young cover, Cortez the Killer, and Ribot matched him cover for cover by doing a version of Ricky Skaggs’ (Angel on My Mind) That’s Why I’m Walkin’. Cortez was a highlight of the night for me, with some really nice acoustic/electric interplay and some great vocals by Hidalgo; but Ribot’s version of Angel on My Mind was… not so much a favorite. I would call the vocals largely unsuccessful on that one. Luckily they followed that up with a fantastic and fun rendition of Los Lobos’ Neighborhood, with both of them singing together, some awesome guitar solos, and an enthusiastic audience clap-along. Definitely a highlight of the night.
Ribot decided to dig deep into the “really weird cover song choices” bin once again for the next one – for the final song in the main set he did a mean electric-guitar version of Hanky Panky. This one, surprisingly, actually worked really well in spite of Ribot’s somewhat weird vocals. He did some really spectacular guitar playing on this, to the point that random audience members were whistling and hollering out of sheer exuberance during the solos. Hidalgo also played electric on this one to give it an extra boost of dirty, powerful guitar sound.
After an enthusiastic standing ovation, they didn’t make us wait long for an encore. Their song choices settled down a bit, with Hidalgo pulling out another Latin Playboys tune (Chinese Surprise) and Marc Ribot closing the show with a really gorgeous, impassioned cover of Wilson Pickett’s I Found A Love. Both of these featured a ton of fantastic electric guitar licks and were a really satisfying way to end the night. Really solid, high-quality performances all around in the encore.
Hidalgo and Ribot unfortunately don’t play together all that often, but if you get a chance to catch one of their “Border Music” concerts, they come highly recommended!