Playing the Traveling Groupie with Woodhead & Echo Moth
If I were a Christian, then I would say I was blessed, but I'm not, so I'm going to say I'm lucky instead. I'm lucky to have some amazing friends in my life who also happen to be phenomenal musicians, so when three of those friends flew out from NYC to play a short tour ranging from Tijuana to San Francisco, I was thrilled to fly down from Seattle for both the reunion and the music.
I have written about Woodhead for Culture Catch in the past, the alternative/art rock brainchild of composer Vern Woodhead. I have also had the pleasure of seeing all of Vern's musical manifestations since 1999, but this most recent one is the pinnacle of his accomplishments. Touring with Woodhead were regular band members Yana Davydova (guitar) and Dmitry Ishendko (bass) who were joined for this stretch by drummer Alvaro Nuñez, a Tecate native who has played with Vern in numerous previous projects. In addition to getting to hear songs live from the new album, El Inmortal, for the first time, Yana's own project Echo Moth also played an opening set for each show. Playing the traveling groupie for both acts over the next four days was my honor and privilege.
The first show was in Tijuana, Mexico (more commonly abbreviated simply as "TJ"). The band had assembled in Tecate (where the beer comes from) days prior to practice, so I was to meet up with them at the venue, a dive bar named Mods in a complex called Plaza Fiesta. As I crossed the U.S./Mexico border on foot at San Ysidro and began wandering down Avenida Revolución it occurred to me that I hadn't been back to TJ since early 2000… and things have changed. A friend and I were mugged at knife-point during my first adventure there, back in 1998, but that wasn't the TJ I found myself reuniting with in 2016. Perhaps it's because I've traveled considerably since and experienced a wider variety of dangers & shocks, but the term "third world" did not apply as much as it did in my memories of the raucous street, lined with strip clubs, bars, and vendors. The strip clubs, bars, and vendors were all still there, and I'm certain the streets would still be filled with drunk and vomiting San Diego college students hours later, but some of the menace had vanished. Stores were more orderly arranged, the sidewalks and street were clean and actually paved, the chaotic nature had diminished and it was clear some civic projects had afforded Revolución a more modern and trendy look. Again, I'm certain the character would have shifted somewhat if I had stuck around for "la hora de los borrachos" (roughly translated, "drunk ass white people"), but it was when I arrived at Plaza Fiesta that the truly pleasant surprise presented itself.
During my college years I had reveled in the areas TJ has designated for visiting U.S. citizens looking to behave badly, but waiting for my friends to arrive at Plaza Fiesta was my first time seeing where the locals of that often notorious city go out themselves for a good time. Meet the burgeoning Mexican middle class: young consumers happily patronizing some new offerings of microbrews, craft beers, wine tastings, and a variety of international foods. The atmosphere carried no air of menace or illegality, as had the TJ of my youth, but was instead completely casual, festive, and thoroughly safe. This is not your grandpa's TJ. It's not even your dad's TJ…
Eventually my friends arrived, sound checked ensued, the opening bands played (one of which was a Motörhead cover band… Mexicans do love their metal), and then the primary reason for my journey across the border began.
Woodhead is a force to be reckoned with and not something that you've heard before. Exploring more unique qualities of his sound as he probes ever deeper into the truth of his voice, Woodhead (the musician) refuses to release the same album twice and his live show has also continued in its evolution. Like a crazed prophet calling out to all who will listen, Vern's distinctive vibrato quivers intensely as his lyrics tell tale of the forbidding times that we live in. The band plays an incredibly tight set while managing to maintain the anarchy of spirit that we love in rock & roll, yet breaking with tradition enough to always keep it interesting. Elements of Prog Rock are infused with some more immediately accessible sounds that truly rock while holding their own cerebrally as well. Composition is key, as a catchy guitar riff is established and then built upon, brought to a climax (not always when or where you would expect it), deconstructed, brought to the brink of chaos, and then soberly re-introduced… or not. Wherever the song leads the listener it is always clear that the composer is in full control. Davydova's guitar work is impeccable, stamped with the proficiency of her classical training while not being emotionally stunted by too much devotion to structure. Ishenko also finds a happy roost in Woodhead, being an accomplished jazz musician not easily satisfied by some of the less musically challenging manifestations often offered by rock bands. His skills lend themselves nicely to the complexity of the pieces also allowing him to dispel any myths about the simplicity of playing bass. Though regular drummer, Rob Mitzner, beats the hell out of these tracks on the album, it was a pleasure to see Vern and Alvaro musically reunited for this tour, as Alvaro provided the energy and rhythmic backbone that the beast requires. One element enjoyed on the album missing from the live performance are some very well placed and adeptly written horn arrangements, which work well to add texture and dimension to the songs they grace (played by Alex Weiss on "El Inmortal"). Vern performs with an intensely fevered quality which is particularly catching in his live act, but no less electric on the album.
Now, it's always exciting when a friend who also happens to be an amazing musician has a new song to play for you, but when they have an entire album that is new to your ears… it can be a revelation and Yana Davydova's project, Echo Moth, was as such for me. Having left NYC in early 2014, the songs that comprise her first release, "Murmurs", had developed largely in my absence and the loss has been mine. Also backed by Ishenko and Nunez for this tour, my already fervent respect for Yana and her craft has increased exponentially with this igniting of her own voice through the creation of her smothering compositions.
Davydova's vocals are alluring and poetic and could be likened to a young Joni Mitchell, while her music is reminiscent of that beautiful darkness so popular in the 80s from melancholy masters like Depeche Mode and The Cure. Her sound is filled with that sadness which can make one oddly happy and her guitar work more than matches the delicate complexities of her lyrics and voice. Sometimes tantalizingly disjointed, often mysterious, and always engaging, Davydova's riffs are playful, unpredictable, and indisputably her own. You don't expect one of your most exciting musical discoveries of the year to come from someone you already know, but that was the case and the energy of both sets pushed us into the wee small hours of the morning. Leaving TJ close to 4am, we packed up the gear, split up into two cars, and made our way to Alvaro's place back in Tecate to crash and prepare for the gig in that city.
Growing up in Southern California I have often heard people lament the lack of credible Mexican food almost anywhere too far from the border and it was during this vacation that I had a personal epiphany. The defining difference between legit and impostor is often not the showcase meat as much as the supporting starch. Much like rice at a sushi joint, it is the tortillas of Mexican food that let you know how close you are to the source. When ordering a burrito made with a flour tortilla, you're hoping to see a semi-translucent wrap with an elastic quality, courtesy of the loving use of lard. My reunion with said burritos was a joyous one. I spent considerable time in Tecate in my twenties and have always loved this homey, no-frills border town, so I was very pleased to see that the unpretentious taco stands were still serving up those beloved comfort foods, and that the cartel violence of recent years had faded, but like TJ, there were some unexpected developments.
Waking at the crack of noon, the band members and I headed out for breakfast, but before gorging on fish tacos, Vern suggested we get coffee. This confused me at first until we walked into a trendy coffee shop called Cafe Corteza, with a style and quality of brew able to rival many of those I know back in Seattle. Upon doing a brief web search it became clear that they weren't the only up-scale coffee shop in town and while I was happy to see that the old Tecate dear to my memories was still there, it was also exciting to see this new, developing economy.
Revitalized by the restorative powers of good coffee and fish tacos, we headed over for sound check at the next venue: Centro Estatal de Las Artes, yet another sign of the new and growing Tecate. Equipped to handle anything from rock concerts, dance classes, or a professional-grade touring musical, this arts center was not something I was not expecting to see in the Tecate I had known. Woodhead and Echo Moth played two more killer sets, this time being joined by another friend and Tecate native, Henry Gonzalez, who played the opening act, blending a passion for rock with some more classical Latin troubadour accents.
After partying through the night with friends and the local fan base back at Alvaro's, we spent the next day enjoying our remaining time in Tecate and preparing for our crossing back into the U.S. for the show in San Diego that night (which required Alvaro getting up around 5am to drive our car across the border least it should have been trapped in Tecate due to the several-hour-long lines that can develop at the crossing. The TJ crossing can be even more daunting, being the busiest land border crossing in the world). While aimlessly gathering our gear to cross on foot, still somewhat drifting in the fog of the previous night, Vern and I discussed some of the changes that were evident. As we crossed the border, Vern remarked, "You could really see Tijuana and San Diego as the same metro area, and it is, but a lot of people who live in San Diego don't, or don't want to think of it that way. But people who live in TJ and work in San Diego certainly do and people in TJ root for San Diego teams. A significant portion of Padres fans are Mexican nationals…" Returning to San Diego it was difficult not to acknowledge the diffusion and blurred line existing between both sides of the border. Between the prevalent Hispanic influence on San Diego's character and the strong presence of American franchises in Tijuana alone, the two have their undeniable stamp on each other and citizens of San Diego have much more to gain by accepting this reality as resisting it only goes to showcase some of the city's more sterile qualities.
Living in the United States it is too often the case that we have strong opinions about what is "other" without much or any direct contact. Our thoughts about our southern neighbor are often out-dated or narrowly focused on specific examples which stain the truth of a more general reality. For example, since 2009 more Mexicans have been returning to Mexico than immigrating to the U.S., legally or otherwise (between 2009-2014 there was a net loss of 140,000 Mexicans from the U.S. as they returned home). After seeing the changes of the past decade, compounded with being reunited with family and fleeing some of the less inviting qualities of their northern neighbor, it isn't difficult to see the reason for this reversal. Much like the issue raised in South Park's pointed parody of the situation, "The Last of the Mecheecnns," the question is naturally raised: would Trump's wall work to keep illegal Mexicans out of the U.S., or in.