There is a saying in Spanish that goes “El que mucho abarca poco aprieta”. It’s basically similar to the well known expression “Don’t bite off more than you can chew”. It breaks my heart to say this is how we felt about Quique Escamilla’s performance last night. Let me start off by saying that we are big fans of Quique’s music. B-I-G fans. Yuge, as Trump would say. We were beyond thrilled to finally be able to catch a live performance (and we’ve seen him play live many times…we’re in that awkwardly blurry line between fans of his music and groupies). Having the opportunity to see him perform live with his full band at what we consider to be the best concert venue in Toronto, Koerner Hall, was a treat that may only happen once in a lifetime. And this is what is so sad about what transpired last night. This was a golden opportunity to wow audiences and get them on board to what Coco did for movie audiences: make them fall in love and honour the “Day of the Dead” ancient Mexican indigenous tradition to a generally music-loving and incredibly embracing audience in Toronto.
Quique’s commitment to his social and political causes, especially those of the indigenous populations in Mexico, is very well known and documented. CBC Radio has described him as a “Modern day troubadour [who] makes music that comes straight from the soul. The stories he tells are the stories we need to hear; socially and politically conscious lyrics paired with exceptional musicianship.” He commands the utmost respect for this, and for the way he pours his soul into his music to celebrate and highlight all the wonderful causes he fights so passionately and wholeheartedly for. His main vehicle for this comes in the form of the great music he creates, through which he has managed to engage audiences fully while at the same time transcending language barriers and fusing musical rhythms that would otherwise not meet in any given traditional music genre: huapango, rancheras, rock, pop, to name a few. This genius and original music-creating ability is at the core of why Quique has gained so many loyal followers throughout his now long and fruitful music career. Coming to Koerner Hall to show audiences not only his amazing body of music but also tie it in with the wonderful cultural legacy that is the Day of the Dead Mexican celebration should have been gold. And this opportunity, I felt, was squandered in what became a show that tried to incorporate too much, so many causes, so many not very well prepared theatrical bits with very little music in it.
The evening had promised a “high-voltage Mexican El Día de los Muertos party with theatre, dance, storytelling, décor, and Latin American-infused rock-roots music celebrating the lives of departed activists, world figures, and our own loved ones…to honour departed activists and world figures who have fearlessly fought or given their lives to stand up for either justice, freedom, peace or equality.” It instead became a too-long night of scattered ramblings about causes, political figures and social activists and very, oh-so-very little music. The theatrical performances felt unprepared— mind you the performers were all very good in their own right. It just felt as if they were making up the dialogue on the spot. What this show needed, I felt, was a good director. Had it been done tighter, better prepared and within the allotted time, audiences wouldn’t have started to walk out before the show ended— missing Quique’s live performance of one of his best known songs, Huapango de Tequila.
The musical performances were fantastic. Every song left us wanting for more. Quique’s talent and musical mastery poured from every chord and his songs— a lot of them sung in Spanish— still capture English-speaking audiences’ attention because the music is honestly just that good. Language is not an issue— irrelevant, really— when you hear him perform along with his band. You could actually see and feel the joy in the musicians’ faces throughout their performance. For some of them it may not be the genres they’re mainly used to performing, but music knows no frontiers and the joy as they all came together was palpable. But when they weren’t playing (and there were loooong moments of this) I just felt so sorry, especially for the ones that were standing, because it really was a long show. Would it hurt to give the brass players a couple of stools so they could rest while the long spoken bits were taking place?
Hopefully the talented Mexican-Canadian multi-instrumental musician, singer-songwriter, producer and Juno-award winner comes back from this with a better prepared live musical offering to Koerner Hall in the future. We were left wanting for more music. Escamilla announced his new album, Encomienda, is coming out soon. We look forward to listening to what will surely be great creations from this versatile and accomplished musician. We also look forward to watching him perform, legendary songs like Juan Charrasqueado and Tu, Solo Tu (and hopefully more) while always giving them the Quique twist. And hopefully we get to witness this, at the same venue and we get the chance to catch the live performance of Huapango de Tequila with a full house and finish the show with a standing ovation as the audience claps incessantly in celebration of Quique Escamilla’s musical artistry.
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