When I go to a concert these days it’s as much a cultural experience as it is a musical experience, because as I get older I get more and more interested in observing the crowd at a concert as well as listening to the music. I like music, but I’m also fascinated by who else likes and listens to that music. So when I write a review it’s often as much a review of the venue, the audience and the overall concert going experience as it is of the performers on the stage.
Last night I headed in to downtown Austin to catch the first night of a two-night Christmas appearance from Latino-country-rockabilly crossover artist Raul Malo. The heavyset former lead singer of the Mavericks has a fantastic voice and a great stage presence and appeals to a wide range of fans with his mix of latin, country, rockabilly and tango sounds. I went under strange circumstances, tagging along with a group of lady bureaucrats on a holiday outing from my wife’s office and dragging my teenage daughter along as well. I’ve seen Malo before, but several things about this appearance were truly unique.
The concert was at Antone’s, Austin’s legendary home of the blues. If you don’t know how legendary Antone’s is, the well dressed ancient black guy selling CDs off a crate by the back exit was blues giant Pinetop Perkins who won a Grammy this year at the age of 95 and is headlining at Antone’s on Boxing Day. Every major blues act has played here going back more than 30 years. It was a regular venue for Stevie Ray Vaughn and has been a great showcase for other Austin area blues musicians.
The club moved from its original location on Guadalupe to downtown on 5th street a few years ago, but the new club is remarkably similar to the original. The same bars are in more or less the same position, though they’ve moved the stage to a more central location rather than at the back end of the hall. Back there they’ve now got VIP boxes where you can pay extra to be way too far from the music, but where you can actually hear the words of musical insight offered by your fellow VIPs.
The crowd was unlike any I’d seen at a Raul Malo concert before. He’s always had a broad appeal, but he seems to have broken through to an entirely new market, wealthy aging women looking for a Latino heartthrob — the cougar demographic.
It’s the first time I’ve been to a concert in years where I was one of the youngest people there — the largest concentration of people under 50 was on the stage. I’m still not sure how I feel about having my butt fondled by the drink-sloshing, lecherous soccer mom behind me. I admit that before I shaved my beard I looked a bit like Raul Malo’s slightly older, slightly thinner brother, but I’m still not used to getting pawed.
Yet what was really strange was that up-front where at most concerts the hot teen groupies hang out, was a whole swarm of women who were at least in their 60s. It was like the tango class from Westlake Country Club had all come down to the city on a field trip. Weirdest of all, they had all dragged their grey-headed CEO husbands along with them. While the big-haired cougars were dancing, their husbands stood behind them, unmoving, arms crossed and looking uncomfortable and wishing they could find a golf course or a boardroom where they could look more natural.
The star of the geriatric gyrator set was the one we nicknamed ‘Cougara’ because she had dressed the part in a tight, leopard-pattern mini-dress complimented by a zebra-pattern purse. She had an eerie resemblance to Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan from The Others, including the puffed up white hair, a style apparently popular only in Ireland and Texas.
I felt safer back by the bar, where I blended in with the youngsters of the night, those of us in the 40ish and 50ish age range, all dressed in our khaki slacks and untucked Hawaiian shirts — the full Miami look like David Zayas (Sgt. Angel Battista in Dexter) who bears a passing resemblance to Miami-native Malo himself.
Oh, and there was music. And it was very, very good. It really was the Christmas show it was billed as. In addition to his favorites like “Every Little Thing About You,” “Sway,” “Dance the Night Away,” and “I Said I Love You,” he cranked out a slew of Christmas songs from his 2007 album Marshmallow World and Other Holiday Favorites. He kicked it off with the title song about 4 songs into his set and I have to say that made for a rocky start on the Christmas music. “Marshmallow World” is a new contender for my list of the worst holiday songs of all time. But pretty soon he switched to classics like “Silent Night” and “Winter Wonderland” which went over much better. He also threw in some new songs from his forthcoming CD Lucky One including “Hello Again” which is his current single.
For me the best song of the night was his version of “Blue Christmas,” which reminded me that Malo’s voice is just a little bit better than the King’s (oh, sacrilege), and his more upbeat arrangement really takes the song to another level. Also striking was his performance of the Eddie Fisher classic “Games that Lovers Play,” a song which many Vegas lounge singers have mangled, but which Malo sang very much in the style of Roy Orbison and almost pulled off. There’s a high note in the chorus which Connie Francis hits in her version and which Orbison could have pulled off, but where Malo came up just a tiny bit short. It was still very impressive. He has the pipes to take on the very best and convince you he’s in the same league. The quality and timbre of his voice really is remarkable, and unlike some of the other great rock and roll singers he really can hold his own on the guitar as well.
Raul Malo’s combination of a great voice, a winning personality, strong guitar skills and sharp rock and roll arrangements of new and classic songs with a bit of latin flavor thrown in is enormously appealing. I didn’t realize that he and his music had this strange attraction for older women until this show, but just because they’re cougars looking for a new Elvis, that doesn’t mean they don’t have good taste in music too.
If you haven’t discovered Raul Malo yet, I’d recommend starting with his Live at Austin City Limits collection. He really is great live, the sound quality is excellent and it’s a kind of greatest hits CD so you can’t go wrong. And since it’s Christmas time, try the holiday album. It’s better than most of the alternatives.