Live at Tower Records, April 17th 1999
Tito and Tarantula
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Wednesday, June 2 1999, 4:29 PM
I was spoiled at an early age. Most of the rock n' roll bands I saw between the ages of fourteen and eighteen were at warm-weather Sunday afternoon free concerts, among acres of hippies, bikers, radicals, college students and high school students who created a semi-autonomous arena of permissive leisure and community. I still don't like to pay more than $3 for live music; it feels most right to get it for free. You might've guessed, we don't get out much except when we're on the guest list, so I relished a chance to see Tito and Tarantula at 6 p.m. on a sunny spring afternoon at a record store.
Three years ago I saw the gentle 1960s troubador Donovan play at the same Tower during a stretch when his actor-model-musician son Donovan Leitch was getting more press, perhaps paving dad's brief and tiny comeback. Droopy-faced Donovan gamely strummed his acoustic guitar at the front of the shop, two dozen heads swaying as everybody imagined the biting lead guitar on "Hurdy Gurdy Man" as he sang.
Now it was Tito and Tarantula's turn, making this appearance as part of their Hungry Sally Eats America Tour a few hours before their engagement at Slim's nightclub. To kick off, they sang a thankful and memorable jingle about the" clumsy, beautiful world". Then came a slow, sultry "House That Love Built", used in Robert Rodriguez's movie "Desperado". I remember "For the Love of Ivy", as being the title of a movie too, but here it was a long and plaintive tune. All the songs had a balanced and economical number of chords: one, two, or four.
Tito Larriga is also an actor, appearing in David Byrne's 1986 movie "True Stories" and--in character as the psychic circuit-board assembler--singing the Talking Heads' "Radio Head" with a Tex-Mex band. Tito also appeared with Tarantula as the bar band in the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez vampire movie "From Dusk Till Dawn", and his wry stage demeanor reminds me of another actor in that film, Cheech Marin. As with Keanu Reeves', Johnny Depp's or Harry Dean Stanton's bands, actors often are judged more critically than more singularly-focused musicians, while they often bring greater understanding of the entertainment value inherent in the medium.
Tito sat out front with his guitar on his knee, while the other guitarist was a Sonic Smith facsimile with a bank of effect pedals at his toe. The mohawk'd drummer looked like comix artist Paul Mavrides (or someone Mavrides would draw) and sported a brass wireframe pyramid atop his head, presumably to keep his beats "sharp". Playing bass was a Kim Gordon-like Anglo-Saxon woman as upright as a Grant Wood painting. Few noticed the demure violin player named Figueroa perched on a tall stool to the side until she soloed and heads craned to see her.
Despite the attention-getting qualities of the entertainers present, the commercial concerns of a busy urban record store pulsed on around us. I burst out laughing when the guy standing next to me was handed a CD by his solemn friend as if he'd just found a long-sought obscure treasure: Tom Petty's Greatest Hits
I'll bet they get tired of Mexican food metaphors applied to them, but Tito and Tarantula's rock n' roll music did possess all its dependable gustatory virtues and unpretentious nutrition. Garage rock has long been enriched by the Latino community, from Richie Valens in the 1950s through Los Lobos to some distinct hip-hop acts today. Some Latino bands whose echoes can be heard in Tarantula's simple, steady song structures made a national impact in the 1960s: Question Mark (Rudy Martinez) and the Mysterians, East L.A.'s Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midnighters, even the eclectic Sam the Sham (Domingo Samudio) and the Pharoahs.
Like many corridas from Northern Mexico that sing of Pancho Villa's revolutionary army or describe contemporary narcotraficantes (drug smugglers), sometimes Latino rock's content has been political. Sixteen years ago Los Illegals, fronted by muralist Willie Herron, issued punk critiques of La Migra--immigration police--and other indignities. Herron and friends also contstituted the performance- and installation-art collective Asco, Spanish for nausea. Meanwhile Tito Larriga's groups The Plugz and The Cruzados appeared in that promising early '80s moment where California's Latino and Punk cultures overlapped, in bands like The Dils or David Javelosa's Los Microwaves.
Not notably inventive, Tito and Tarantula base their sound on hummable songs, craftily-wrought guitar riffs and economical breaks, seemingly a band enjoying themselves as they assemble their rock n' roll from well-burnished, recognizable parts. Within these limitations, they're subtle and enjoyable. Still, some provocative opposites were set up by this afternoon's unassuming little event. These included Band/Audience (which one stood and which sat was reversed from the usual), Stage/Store, Free/Commercial, Loud/Soft, Light/Dark (the three men in the band wore sunglasses, resembling Fisherman's Wharf-bound tourists who wandered in off of the street to the brightly-lit store). Rock music, like all pop cultural artifacts, is at its best when a raft of contradictions lurks just under consciousness.