Live Review: Descarga, El Guapo, & Zamandoque Tarahum

The entrance to the Big Horse Lounge looks like an average Chicago lunch counter turned taco stand -- with a facsimile of the historic Villa/Zapata photo from the Mexican Revolution and soccer-fan paraphernalia on bare white walls glaring under greasy fluorescent wash -- opening into a backroom cantina that has featured rock bands on its small stage since the height of '90s Wicker Park popularity. Mixed identity is no new thing for the venue, which still goes by its former name for owner Armando Enriquez, who calls it "El Chaparral" when answering the phone. A native of Chihuaha, Enriquez has run the business for 14 years, in which time it went from serving the Latino community with Mexican music -- rancheras, norteņas, and bandas -- to providing another rock venue for the rapidly gentrified neighborhood. The bar's musical format changed with new developments and tastes, and even though "white folks call it 'Big Horse'," Enriquez says, "this place is still Mexican."

And it's getting even more Mexican, as booking manager Fabian Guerra has started making room at the lounge for local Latin bands looking to climb the walls of cultural/linguistic difference and get into mainstream rock venues. In the shadow of the Double Door, "Big Horse is a testing ground for bands to get into bigger venues," says Guerra. Of Ecuadorian descent, he has been working with the lounge for a few years, booking alt-country, punk, and rock bands. He also has his own promotions company -- Quest Management -- and considers the Latin bands on par with their English-language rock counterparts. The opening salvo of Latin rock at the Big Horse -- with Descarga and El Guapo warming up the crowd for Zamandoque Tarahum -- came to pass with a call from band manager and promoter Sandra Treviņo. "As long as they're good and promote themselves, I'm open to booking more," Guerra points out.

As the night progresses, the cantina gets cozy with moderate turnout, and Guerra is enthusiastic about the possibilities. He hears commercial potential in El Guapo, for example, as a kind of Spanish-language Third Eye Blind. Coming through a revolving door of cultural connection, El Guapo once played mainstream venues (e.g. Double Door, Metro, and Thurston's) as an English-language band called Mud, but they changed their name to vibe with Latino fans after doing a Spanish rock showcase at House of Blues, choosing the name of the villain from The Three Amigos as their new handle. With a polished sound and pop-punk-style progressions, El Guapo wear savvy on their sleeves from working the music scene bilingually to maximize exposure.

Standing out as one of the more unique-sounding Latin rock bands locally, Zamandoque Tarahum typically get the crowd slamming and surfing with open-ended jam sessions between congas, timbales, and guitar, fusing rock attitude with folkloric Mexican spirit. During the closer, Chicago police and FBI agents arrive to investigate a bomb threat made from the Big horse payphone to the Hancock Center, and one of the officers pauses to ask, "What kind of music is this?" during a Santana-like arabesque of percussion and guitar wailing.

The owner has been busy accommodating the police, but he smiles and gives a salute from behind the bar when Descarga launch into a punkified version of "Siempre en Mi Mente," by Mexican pop sensation Juan Gabriel. "I'm still Mexican," Descarga singer Hector Garcia seems to say through the JuanGa cover, "and I did it my way."

14 March 2002, Illinois Entertainer

Posted by Benjamin at June 20, 2004 11:14 PM