December 1, 1992


location: Coach House
place: San Juan Capistrano, CA
country: USA



Breezy Texas Tornados Have Nothing to Prove

December 03, 1992 | MIKE BOEHM

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — There wasn't a hint of slickness in the Texas Tornados' show Tuesday night, except maybe Doug Sahm's shiny brown gambler's suit.

The music and presentation were nothing but earthy and unpretentious as the veteran all-star foursome of Tex-Mex musicians opened a three-night run at the Coach House that winds up tonight.

The only highfalutin concept one conceivably could attach to the Tornados might involve their a role as preservers of the Mexican folk tradition that's a significant slice in their many-flavored pie of roots-music styles. But Tornados Sahm, Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez, together with a sharp, three-man rhythm section, didn't seem concerned with preserving anything except a lighthearted mood and the good-time spirit that pervaded their easygoing, expertly played show.

No band concerned with keeping folkways pristine would festoon virtually every unspoken-for inch of wall space with advertising posters hawking a sponsoring brand of beer, as the Tornados did--much less pause midway through the show for a commercial break in Spanish and English, complete with bottoms-up, belching consumption of the product.

No, what the Tornados are about isn't anything very lofty. It's a band founded on enlightened self-interest, of a quite respectable kind. Apart, it's doubtful that any of the four Tornados would command a large enough audience to play a three nights at the 480-seat Coach House, much less have a steady recording gig on a major label (the band recently released "Hangin' On by a Thread," its third album in as many years for Reprise Records' Nashville division).

But with their talents pooled, Sahm, Meyers, Fender and Jimenez get a reasonably high-profile vehicle that allows them to play the music they enjoy--which happens to be unimpeachably solid, character-rich stuff you can't find anywhere else.

Fender, a distinctive stylist with a trebly flutter in his voice, handled the bulk of the vocals. That meant a strong sampling of ballads--easy-rolling, '50s-style slow-dance rock 'n' roll ("Oh Holy One," "A Man Can Cry," "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is"), as well as sentimental Mexican tunes ("Volver" and "Mentiras").

Fender, the bushy-haired, mustachioed singer who was born Baldemar Huerta and hit it big as a country ballad singer in the mid-'70s, sounded a bit grainier than on record. But he got good harmony support from Sahm and Jimenez and essayed his schmaltzy songs sincerely without trying to over-dramatize them or make them more than the pleasant oldies they are.

Sahm got to feature his raspy but engaging vocals on such brightly rocking Tex-Mex songs as "Adios Mexico," "Mendocino" and "She's About a Mover," all from his days as leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet. Meyers, who has been Sahm's sidekick on keyboards since the Sir Doug days, provided the archaic, merrily beeping and bouncing organ sound that defines Tex-Mex rock, and fronted the band for a couple of wry, hang-dog tunes well-suited to his homespun voice.

The crucial Tornado was Jimenez. His virtuoso flights on button accordion gave the band a distinctive spin and provided its most consistently playful thread, taking his instrument beyond its conventional mellow and wistful bounds.

Listening to his swift bursts, one thought of a tot racing about, skittering and sliding and doing pratfalls, then suddenly righting itself to dance and dart with nimble assurance. Some of what Jimenez played was downright weird: sharp, dissonant blasts that kept you wondering what he might conjure next, not to mention when he'd be sitting in with Sun Ra's space-jazz Arkestra.

With their reliance on polka beats, the Tornados were given good, sprightly support by drummer Ernie Durawa and bassist Speedy Sparks, although for much of the show the drums were too prominent in the mix. Guitarist Louie Ortega joined Sahm and Fender for a couple of good face-offs involving three-way guitar harmonies. These Tornados may not exactly blow you away, but it's hard to imagine anybody walking away from their show without a smile.

Second-billed Duke Robillard qualifies as one of the unsung greats of contemporary rock guitar. Though his career goes back to the 1960s, when he founded Roomful of Blues, he only recently has gained somewhat wider recognition, having joined the Fabulous Thunderbirds after Jimmie Vaughan's departure.

Fronting his own trio, Robillard managed to astonish without having to resort to grandstanding. (Actually, the audience saved its biggest cheers for his most conventional playing, on the slow blues "My Tears"--and the response may have been stirred by Robillard's resorting to his one flashy move of the night, the old play-with-the-guitar-held-behind-your-head trick).