The Eagles Ballroom, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: I did not set out to write a review. My intention here was simply to jot down a few notes about a recent music experience — to remind myself of some noteworthy points about a recent outing when I went to hear … well, I want to call it something other than “Mexican music,” but I guess that’s what it was. And I mean no disrespect by it. My daughter Cindy admonishes me: “Dad, there is nothing inherently racist in the word Mexican.” True, but sometimes I still wonder …
These “few notes” began to expand. And then expand again. What follows is an account of my night of Mexican music in Milwaukee.
Why did I go?: Since last fall, I have seen ads for various Mexican horn bands booked into the Eagles Ballroom. My schedule did not allow me to get to a show — until Feb. 11. I had been listening to the Milwaukee radio stations that play Mexican music. I don’t speak Spanish, but most of these stations’ music really kicks: tight horns and powerful rhythms. I had tried to find a year-end countdown of this music last December. My usually reliable XM Radio let me down on providing such a chart. I went so far as asking a friendly waiter at Milwaukee’s Conejito Mexican Restaurant if he knew of any sort of weekly Mexican music countdown show on local radio. Actually, my lovely wife Ellie asked him. Nope.
The Eagles Ballroom had two separate concerts booked for this particular Saturday night, so I wanted to arrive early and avoid parking north of the club, where the neighborhoods can get dicey pretty quickly. The Mexican music show was to feature four bands, starting at 8 p.m. I was in line, ready to buy a ticket at 7:30 in the breezy basement room on this winter night – a room that the architects of the building never meant to be a main entrance.
The young man at the inner door was immediately dismissive: “If you are here for the rock show by the band Pop Evil, come in and go up the stairs. If you are here for that other music, line up against the wall. They are not ready for you.” Essentially: “You Mexicans, Up Against That Wall!” His attitude seemed casually dismissive. Irritatingly arrogant What surprised me as much as the hall not being open yet was that I was only the third person in the line, 30 minutes before showtime. A small draw, it seemed. So, I waited. We were cold in the unheated subterranean anteroom, watching the Pop Evil crowd pass us by, immediately entering the main building and finding warmth.
By 8 p.m., the line included maybe 70 well-dressed individuals, and were finally allowed to ascend the stairs to the beautiful structure of the main lobby. I had been hoping to encounter people on the street with extra tickets; this happens at Eagles Ballroom shows with some frequency. But not tonight. So, I went to the ticket counter. The ad had said $35 for a ticket, and I knew it would likely creep into the lower 40s with the hidden fees. But, with four large bands — and a lot of group members to pay – I felt that the price was fair.
I was surprised, then, when the girl selling tickets to me, “Sixteen dollars.” Great! Maybe I was right about sluggish sales and they had lowered the price to fill the hall. I peeled off a ten, a five, and a one. Sixteen dollars. “No,” she said. “Sixty dollars: six zero.” SIXTY DOLLARS!! “Your ad said thirty-five,” I told her. “That’s pre-sale. Day of the show is sixty.” Whoa. I thought for a moment and then told her, “I just can’t justify sixty dollars, but thanks.” And I walked away, to the surprise of the young ticket seller.
Shoot. I had been looking forward to this night and had already invested a lot of time in it. I walked out one of the large front doors and stood in the cold rain for a minute, thinking about what to do. I briefly considered attending the Pop Evil show, but Pop Evil was not why I had come. Besides, I have been to many rock concerts; I had never attended a true Mexican music event — not even during my tenure in Texas.
I went back inside to see if anybody was selling extra tickets. Not likely. So, I thought, “What the hell?” I walked to the Will Call line and told the woman behind the glass that I was on the guest list for the Mexican music show. “Pop Evil?” she asked. “No. The other one.” “Oh.” She took my ID and went to check. She was gone for quite a while; things did not look good. She finally came back and told me that they did not have a guest list for that show. Instead, I should go through the security checkpoint and talk to the guy taking tickets at the door to that concert.
Lying to a burly Mexican ticket taker gave me pause, so again I almost left. But instead, I got into line and was enthusiastically frisked by a security guard. Nice enough guy; even chatty. But I thought maybe he enjoyed his job a bit too much. Free to proceed to the next level, I walked to where a very large man was taking tickets for the Mexican music show and told him I was on the guest list, or reviewing the show, or some claptrap that I didn’t think would work. He kept pointing me back to the ticket office. I told him that they had sent me to him. He finally said, “Man, that room is full of Mexicans.” I said, “I know. That’s where I am trying to go. Can you slip me in?” He paused for a moment, and then pointed me up the stairs, past his two (even larger) bouncers. They stared at me as I thanked the ticket taker. These would not be the last stares I would receive during the night.
I walked into the faded glory of the gorgeous Eagles Club Ballroom — a space built for the likes of Glenn Miller and Mildred Bailey. Balcony boxes ring the perimeter above large dance floor, but the balcony was closed for this engagement. Small wonder: As I entered there were maybe 40 people in the huge room. Had they misjudged their audience this severely? Round tables, each seating eight, were plentiful near the back of the hall as I walked around. I sat alone at one and watched the stage as a sound check took place. It was the type of basic procedure that should have occurred closer to 4 p.m. But here they were — 20 minutes after the music was supposed to begin — striving (loudly) to tune drum heads and check microphones. I feared we were in for a long wait before the music would start.
Most frustrating, though, was the lack of heat in the venue; it was nothing short of cold in there! No strong winds were blowing, as when we waited to get in, but it was uncomfortably cold nonetheless. I kept my coat on for most of the night; my knit stocking cap I never removed. I was fortunate to have on layers of clothing; I felt badly for many of the young women whose attire was skimpy, if fashionable. More than once I wondered to myself how much they would have charged for a ticket had they decided to heat the place.
Far sooner than I had expected, a distinct voice gave a crisp introduction in Spanish; clearly, the music was about to begin. Thirteen men in matching canary yellow uniforms came onto the stage and began the first tune. Their name was Banda Maguey, from Jalisco, Mexico. They are given credit with the popularizing technobanda sound. Or so I later read. I heard little to do with techno in their music. It was horns, rhythm, and two lead singers. And I liked it a lot. I was familiar with none of the songs played that night; I understood none of the lyrics. And I knew this would be the situation going in.
The front man for Banda Maguey was neither of the vocalists, surprisingly enough, but a member of the horn section. This sax player made all of the introductions and acted as ring leader of sorts for two keyboard players, an electric bassist, a drummer, and the rest of his own seven-piece brass section—two tenor saxophones, two valve trombones and three trumpets. These horn players were on the front line, flanking the singers. The horns were so prominent that they obscured the rhythm section behind them.
Song styles fluctuated between dance numbers of varying lively tempos and ballads that featured one of the band’s two lead vocalists. Sometimes, both. Individual instrumental solos were rare; it was almost all rhythm and horns, each working as a unit. When one tenor sax player was given a short feature, though, he made the most of it, showing that he could excel as section player and as soloist. There was no printed music on the band stand; these guys kept the complicated horn charts in their heads.
Choreography was an integral part of the set. The synchronized movements of the horns had been rehearsed to the point of a number by the June Taylor Dancers. Only when a group member was actually playing was he standing still, allowing him to direct the sound of his instrument straight into the microphone. Dancing is fine, but presenting the music remained the priority for this show. And a show it was! Visually arresting as they were in bright yellow uniforms, the group had other elements to augment their sound. The bells of the trombones glowed red from within, and a precision light show kept the players in constant moving patterns of illumination.
Banda Maguey played and played. They seemed to be having a great time, and the enthusiastic audience had now swelled to several hundred. These bodies had not helped to warm the room at all, but they had filled the dance floor. When Banda Maguey’s set ended, it was 9:30. I had enjoyed their music, but I was confused as to how the opener could get a full hour of performance time. We had three more groups coming.
I returned from the lip of the stage to my large table, which was now also being used by two couples who had asked if they could sit with me. They were not interested in joining me, of course, but table space had become scarce. Three of the four in the group eyed me silently with ongoing suspicion, or so it struck me. But one of the men seemed fascinated about my presence. He was pleasant and friendly as he asked me several questions. “Are you from around here?” “Yes; I have lived in Milwaukee about 25 years.” “You like this music?” “I do. Maybe it’s from my time spent in Texas.” Ah Texas! There we had some common ground. “I lived there, too,” he told me. “But it was way too hot; I prefer Wisconsin.” I told him that I was looking forward to some tight horns and had really enjoyed the first band. This brief conversation took some time and effort as we were fighting to be heard over the loud interlude music from the P.A. system. More than this, I don’t speak Spanish, and his English was not great. But we made it work. And I appreciated his instigating the conversation.
A little before 10 o’ clock, the second band came on stage. Here were the headliners, although I did not realize it at the time: La Original Banda el Limon. Like the first group, this outfit was professional and ready to play. But as the large ensemble took the stage, I noted that this band had a very different make-up than Banda Maguey. Gone were the keyboards and bass. La Original Banda el Limon was comprised of two lead vocalists, two percussionists, and 12 horn players. Twelve! If I wanted to hear a horn band, here they were! Nine of the horn players were again at the front of the stage, with three standing near the percussionists. The back row was low brass. The first group sounded as if they had a tuba in the band, but I soon determined that a keyboard was being used as a substitute for the low brass sounds. La Original Banda el Limon had a true Sousaphone in the group for its bass part, along with two baritones. The front line included three trombones, three trumpets and, on the other side of the vocalists, three clarinets!
I had enjoyed the first group, but La Original Banda el Limon took things to a new level. The horns were having a great time and were again moving as one. The clarinets were especially active; perhaps this was because of the lightness of their instrument. The late country singer Chris LeDoux insisted that, at any engagement, the performers on stage should be having more fun than anybody else in the room. This certainly seemed to be true with La Original Banda el Limon. I stood in front of the three exuberant clarinetists for a while in amazement of what they were playing and their stage demeanor. I wanted to party with them.
All too soon, the group’s ballads and speedily intricate horn charts came to an end. It seemed to have been a short set. And as I checked the time, I saw that this band had played only 45 minutes, when the opener played an hour. It stuck me odd. I had heard what La Original Banda el Limon could do, but I was ready for a couple more tunes. Strange to me also was the lack of encores for either group. No one seemed especially worried about time, so I don’t think this was a factor. When they were finished, they were finished. Even more surprising to me — all night long — was a lack of applause after the selections. The bands would play a number. It would end. Then they would count off the next tune. The audience was active, attentive, interested, dancing, listening, participating … but there was virtually no applause at the end of songs. And it was obvious that none was expected by these performers. Once or twice, I began to clap at the end of a tune, only to realize that my hands alone were making any sounds. I stopped.
Now it was 11 p.m. Two more bands? I wanted to stay, mainly because the first two groups were so different from one another. I wondered if the third group would add another new spin to this genre. So, I waited. And waited. My ears now needed a break. The loud pre-recorded music was not helpful, as the bands themselves had been amplified to rock show levels. In fact, I wished I could have heard how the horns would have sounded in that venue with no amplification. After all, this room was built for music performance. I have the feeling the acoustics would have been fine. I doubt if the big bands of the 1940s had any instrument amplification when playing here in their prime.
The break dragged on. I walked around and found a heating unit that was actually producing heat. I stood there a while. I later went to the upper level of the Eagles Club, onto the open balcony high above the once thriving Wisconsin Avenue. I was again struck with what a magnificent building this had been in its day and, in many ways, still is.
Shortly before midnight there was some activity on the stage. Finally, the band emerged. But what was this? A seven-piece group. How could it take an hour to set up this small ensemble? They played their first tune and it was nothing remarkable. The second tune was no better. Were the three horns striving for odd chord voicings, or were just not playing well together? I decided it was the latter. After their fourth non-descript number, I decided to pack it in for the night.
I wondered if my expectations might have been wrong for the order of the bands. Like the absence of applause, perhaps this was a culturally different approach. Maybe the best musicians played first, instead of saving them for the evening’s big ending. It sure seemed like it on this night. In any event, I didn’t want the excellence of the first bands to be spoiled in my memory by this less-impressive group.
As I walked through the back of the hall, I passed the sound man — someone who worked not for the bands, but for the Eagles Club. It was now close to 12:30. I stopped and asked him, “Another band after this one?” He smiled and said, “Maybe. I’m not sure they know themselves. When these Mexicans come here, things get real uncertain.” I couldn’t tell if he was being racist or merely descriptive — a thought that had rattled around in my head more than once during the night. Was it an accident that the heat was not sufficient at the event for “these Mexicans”? Would the room have been properly heated for a Pop Evil concert?
I didn’t know the answer to this, but I did know that the night was over, at least for me. I headed home. I was very glad to have gone; the music and the show had been all I wanted, and more. It is true that I had not understood a word of what was being said or sung during the entire night. But upon reflection, I realized that this is not so different from some rock concerts I’ve attended. Poorly mixed sound or a hall’s bad acoustics often make a performer’s spoken introductions unintelligible. More frequently, a band’s volume level is such that a vocalist’s lyrics are garbled — buried in the mix. I can’t recall a single song lyric from most of the metal shows I have attended. And yet I still enjoyed those nights of music, just as I greatly enjoyed both of these fine bands. Give me a call; we’ll go together next time.
Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.
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