A few weeks ago I had the absolute delight of attending a Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca performance at the San Francisco Jazz Center, organized by the Mex-I-Am program of the Mexican Consulate. I had heard that Flaco and Max were coming to town, and I hesitated a bit as to whether I’d go or not, simply because SF Jazz tickets are not cheap and yours truly is on a budget! Then I heard that a young local musician, Emiliano Rodriguez, son of my friends Eugene and Astrid, would be playing tololoche along with Flaco and Max and that sealed the deal for me….I was going for sure!
Check this video of Flaco and Max, playing a tune from “Legends & Legacies”
I knew it would be a special night hearing, Flaco, the Tex-Mex master accordionist perform along with the younger but equally authentic, Max Baca. Knowing that they had invited Emiliano, representing some homegrown talent from San Pablo made it all the more exceptional, since the folks at Los Cenzontles have trained, produced and educated local youth in the greater East Bay over the past twenty-five years.
I had seen Flaco perform exactly twice in my life, once at Slim’s in October of 1995 for the Arhoolie Records 35th Anniversary Party and once at the Mariner’s Hall a year or so later. I also had the privilege of having had his brother, Santiago Jimenez sing “Happy Birthday” to me, one year when he was visiting the Arhoolie warehouse. Though I became most familiar with Tex-Mex music and the Jimenez family from my years working at Arhoolie and listening to suggestions from the Down Home Records experts, I had already been steeped in some of the more traditional sounds by virtue of listening to rancheras at home from my father’s LP collection. I particularly remember LPs from Los Alegres de Terán. We also wore out 8-tracks of musica norteña y rancheras on road trips to Monterrey, Nuevo León. It was a long ride from Crockett to Monterrey! While those concerts at Slim’s and the Mariner’s Hall were outstanding and memorable, I was curious to see how Flaco’s sound had evolved after all these years. After all Señor Flaco is 76, but man, is he a force to be reckoned with!
From the very first note he played, I felt immediately transported to a country dance and that feeling of being on the edge of your seat, whether at a Mexican wedding or at a concert in la plaza.I kind of wished there had been a star-lit sky overhead instead of the sleek space of the SF Jazz auditorium, although it is a very sweet venue. They played classics such as “Margarita, Margarita” “Viva Seguín” and “Hey Baby, Qué Paso?”, along with a romantic melodic polka Flaco picked up and adapted in Sweden, of all places. What I loved most, aside from the well-selected repertoire, was also the spareness of their sound, the three instruments: button accordion, bajo sexto, and the upright bass or tololoche created such a pure, old country sound. Flaco and Max’s vocals complimented each other keenly, both powerfully in sync and radiating pure emotion…I was beside myself, thinking about all the ways rancheras were in my blood. They were the constant soundtrack of my childhood: weekends spent at my tio’s ranch in the Napa Valley, all the bodas and bautizos my parents ever dragged me to, learning to dance norteño style with my cousin Martín on the family patio and the leisurely Sunday mornings my Dad would blast rancheras from his FM radio in the kitchen. While, Flaco and Max were riffing off each other and showcasing their songs, Emiliano played with driving, rock-steady rhythm as if he had been playing with these two legends for years. Dr. Loco (aka Professor José Cuellar) was also in the house, and did not hesitate to kick up his heels with his dance partner. I loved the dancers’ energy as they twirled through the aisles to the infectious music.
One of the highlights of the show was hearing the opening notes of one of my all-time favorites, “La Mucura” originally a Colombian cumbia. My first introduction to “La Mucura” was from Rigo Tovar y su Banda Costa Azul on the “Recordando Monterrey” album. That song is pure dancing pleasure. ¡No puedes resistir moviendo el bote! Even though, I was bopping around in my seat, still feeling hindered by the austerity of the SF Jazz environment, I became so damn-charmed by the timbre of Flaco’s voice. He handled the verses solo, with Max chiming in only on the chorus and he just sounded so youthful, like he could say sweet nothings to any girl in the neighborhood and she would follow him anywhere. It was amazing to hear this man, so notable for his prowess on the accordion, suddenly take a tune and render it his own with his singing, pure, vulnerable and honey-coated. He went from 76 to 16 in a matter of minutes.
I was impressed by their energy, their selections and their ability to shine as a trio, but mostly I was impressed by Flaco’s staying power. I wasn’t ready to witness how truly brilliant he was, but I guess that’s what happens when you dedicate a lifetime to your art, as evidenced by his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, early this year. I guess the longer you live, the more attuned you become to the heartbreak, hope and humor in the music.
Even though, the set was short, you got to give Max and Flaco props for staying past the end of the concert to chat with fans and sign autographs. Of course, I was a fan girl and got in line to have my Smithsonian liner notes signed from the CD, “Legends & Legacies.” (Liner notes? Who still prints them? You gotta love it, a thick, bilingual booklet detailing the history of Max and Flaco’s collaboration.)
So I got my CD signed and asked for a photo, too, simply because I already had some cool ones from that Mariner’s Hall concert. I extended my hand for an Americanita style handshake, and he held my hand instead. After I explained that I had met him twenty years earlier through Arhoolie Records, he smiled and said, “Thank you for coming, Mija.” Gracias a usted Flaco, for making such powerful, heart-felt music.
Here are some photos from my scrapbook years ago and the concert in San Francisco on July 26, 2015
“Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio” – Flaco Jimenez -Arhoolie Records
“Los Super Seven” RCA Records
“Flaco Jimenez & Max Baca Legends & Legacies” Smithsonian Folkways