In the land of the Moz, all sorts of terrific reinterpretations of Morrissey and The Smiths come-out-and-play, but none more different and brilliant as Mexrrissey. Liam Moody writes for SFN.
It’s often far easier said than done to separate art from artist, when careers are overtaken and mired by controversy to such a point that their former work cannot be viewed without some tinges of unease.
It’s in this state that we arguably find Mr. Steven Patrick Morrissey today- alone in a room now filled with elephants, following a controversial interview wherein the countercultural icon appeared to endorse an ultra-right-wing political party, created a connection between halal slaughter and Islamic State and even went as far as to consider Adolf Hitler a left-wing politician and that “we are all called racist now, and the word is actually meaningless. It’s just a way of changing the subject.” This is following the press maelstrom that followed his interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, that I will not get into now, this is not the time or place. This, thankfully, is a situation where art and artist can be taken apart fully, where one can be considered without the shadow of the other.
Perhaps it’s the look, the black quiff, sideburns and blue jeans of the greaser subculture. Maybe it’s the emotive crooning style, passionate yet pained ballads of love, torment and death. Possibly the inherent outsider status, the defiance and celebration of being yourself. Over the years, The Smiths have been taken to the hearts of the hispanic world, particularly within Mexico and the Latino communities in certain US cities, especially Los Angeles (the fact that Morrissey himself lived in LA during the 1990s helps this), Morrissey himself has been quoted that “Nothing the world holds could match the love waiting for me in Mexico City”. Therefore, it’s only natural that tribute bands will spring up out of respect of this unlikely hero- Mexrrissey are a collective based within the nation’s capital (via Monterray and Tijuana) who have taken the songs of Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce and transformed them, or ‘Mexterpreted’ them, into traditional mariachi and ranchera style.
Before the Mexterpretations, something closer to home. Carnation are a hometown three-piece, rough and ready, full of swagger and exuding natural confidence. Opening with “Fatal Attraction“, the trio fire on all cylinders. With, as they succinctly put, “rib-rattling riffs with a Mancunian kiss”, Carnation at first glance could be dismissed as mid/late 2000s indie-by-numbers (although hints of Gold Against The Soul-era Manic Street Preachers shine through in singer/bassist Saul Backhouse’s vocal delivery) but their effortless charisma and showmanship really makes them something special. All three of Carnation bring something special to the mix, whether it is Backhouse’s voice, Cameron Nolan’s masterful guitar playing- equally at home with chiming, cascading riffs or buzzsaw powerchords, or the heavy artillery drumwork of Oscar Magini. Carnation are going to be a band to watch in 2018, and it was a shame that the Albert Hall was still only at half-capacity during their set- given the chance, Carnation could take on the world.
The Friday night crowd are in high spirits by the time Mexrrissey take to the stage with a mixture of traditional mariachi instrumentation and traditional rock band setup. The collective are showcasing a brand-new set, encompassing The Smiths’ 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, generally regarded as the band’s best work (up for debate, as all four of their original studio albums hold equal argument in that discussion) and material from their 2016 album No Manchester, they open with a reimagined Chicano-style “La Reina Esta Muerta” bristling with energy, the original’s shuddering feedback now a blaring trumpet and surf-rock inspired twang. Mexrissey tear through the rest of The Queen Is Dead with unbridled joy (musically), with an even more uptempo “Francamente Señor Shankly“, Day Of The Dead party-piece “Cemetry Gates” and a Corrido rendition of “I Know It’s Over“, drenched with emotion and passion, even moreso that the English language original.
Mexrrissey add another layer or variety, another level of depth, through various bandmembers handling lead vocals. While frontman Jay De La Cueva takes centre stage for the lion’s share of the material, he occasionally hands vocal duties to keyboard/melodica player Ceci Bastida, who gender-flips a number of songs, such as the aforementioned “Señor Shankly” and changing “Last Of The Famous International Playboys” into ‘Playgirl’, giving the song an injection of sleazy glamour, the soundtrack to a Robert Rodriguez fever dream. Bilingual singalongs are aplenty as De La Cueva and bandleader Camilo Lara lead the crowd through a mariachi-flavoured Smith’s greatest hits set, all ranchera shuffles and rockabilly trappings- “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (during which De La Cueva left the stage to sing in the crowd), “Ask“, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” all pass by in a giddy delight, but the absolute highpoint of the set comes midway, a beautiful rendition of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out“, during which the band are presented with a gift from a fan- a large Union Flag festooned with the song’s title.
In the post-Der Spiegel-interview world (or even post-Finsbury Park 1992, to mark a possible ground zero in terms of Morrissey controversies), this would have uncomfortable connotations, but here the exchange is a one of sincerity, of cross-cultural love and friendship (Hands across the sea, as the great Glaswegian philosopher Rab C. Nesbitt would note)- “We love Manchester”, Lara explains, “we travel the world playing your music”- the audience respond in kind the entire night, creating an amazing atmosphere, singing and dancing perhaps even more than they would to the songs’ originator.
Another gimmick that needs to be noted, the large video screen set up behind the band, displaying a mixture of Mexican and Morrissey-esque imagery- traditional Mexican party scenes mesh with black-and-white film of Manchester streets, skulls, flowers, a stop-motion Donald Trump piñata, and on occasion, literal illustrations for songs- case in point, an animated Joan Of Arc surounded by fire holding a Walkman.
The collective reach their crescendo during an extended “Panic”, incorporating an impressive country-western-styled guitar solo from Jay De La Cueva, and a rather bizarre spoken-word interlude involving a talking baby alpaca (…no, I don’t know.) before tearing into “Estuvo Bien” and ending on a magnificent “How Soon Is Now?“, transformed into a shuffling cha-cha, resplendent with brass and a guitar line that is somehow even swampier than Marr’s original.
It is impossible to come away from Mexrrissey feeling anything other than strange satisfaction- on paper, the mixture of somewhat divisive indiepop and Mariachi, translated into Spanish and then played back to the hometown of the originals, is such an odd proposition that you need to see it purely out of curiosity.
However, it would take just a matter of moments for Mexrrissey to win over even the most ardent Smiths detractors. Pure unabashed joy to behold.
Muchas gracias chicos. Eres maravilloso. Por Favor Vuelve Pronto.
Words and photography by Liam Moody.
[Editorial notes that all words are that of the author].