It is hard to say which song drove the crowd more bananas.
Was it "Girlfriend in a Coma," the wickedly morbid Smiths single from 1987, delivered as a cha-cha-cha with cowbell? Maybe it was the acoustic rendition of "Mexico," British crooner
One thing is for sure: Mexrrissey, the project band that transforms the moody songs of former Smiths frontman Morrissey with Spanish lyrics and Latin beats, inspired impassioned hollering and clapping and swaying in unison at downtown Los Angeles' Regent Theater on Monday night.
Led by DJ Camilo Lara of the electronica outfit Mexican Institute of Sound, Mexrrissey is a rotating lineup of musicians from both sides of the border devoted to channeling the Mexican love of all things Morrissey.
"My first record was the first Smiths record," says the Mexico City-based Lara. "I had it when I was 6 years old. I would listen to 'Sesame Street' and 'Burbujas,' a children's album, and then I would listen to Morrissey and Bauhaus. It's part of what I grew up with."
Lara first set on the Mexrrissey idea almost five years ago, when he created a Latin-ized remix of Morrissey's "Something Is Squeezing My Skull," with blaring trumpets as joyous counterpart to the singer's dark lyrics about mood stabilizers.
It is in Morrissey's lyrics — about death, alienation and other morbid mental states — says Lara, that he finds a cultural affinity, comparing it to the Mexican tradition of producing bouncy, cheerful polkas about tragedies such as war, death and lost love.
"There's a lot of irony, there's a lot of drama," he says, taking a smoke-break Monday after the band's sound check. "[Morrissey's] lyrics have a lot of humor, even if on the surface it doesn't seem that something like that would be funny. He can talk about things like death and be ironic."
Late last year, Lara decided to take the Mexrrissey idea beyond a simple remix and teamed up with influential Mexican musicians to completely reimagine Morrissey's music. Composer and bandleader Sergio Mendoza of Calexico and Orkesta Mendoza helped Lara translate lyrics and compose new arrangements. (Mendoza is the sort of talent who plays just about every instrument he lays his hands on, including keyboards, percussion and horns.)
The group has also drawn the participation of popular indie figures such as singer and producer Jay de la Cueva, Café Tacvba violinist Alejandro Flores, alterna-rocker Chetes, drummer Ricardo Nájera and L.A.-based singer-songwriter Ceci Bastida, who last year received wide critical acclaim for her solo album, "La Edad de la Violencia" ("The Age of Violence"). The Regent lineup featured Lara, De la Cueva, Nájera, Mendoza and Bastida, as well as Adan Jodorowsky — who goes by "Adanaowsky" — a New Wave-inspired singer who also happens to be the son of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Together, the band has reconceived some of Morrissey and the Smiths' most iconic tunes. "Ask" becomes "Dime" (or "Tell Me") and is set to a seismic samba beat. "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" is infused with cumbia.
"Panic," which gets a dose of oompa norteño sounds as well as riffs from the Isley Brothers anthem "Shout," literally brought the audience to its knees at Monday's show. Lara whispered the lyrics as the audience dipped down, then jacked up the volume and let the crowd explode. For a while, both band and audience jumped up and down in unison, as if everyone in the room were part of a single throbbing organism.
To be sure, the music is an all-over fusion of pop, rock, New Wave and various Latin styles. "I didn't want to do a postcards of Mexico, like the Mexican government would do a show about Mexico," Lara says. "I just want to give the flavor, so people will understand Mexican-ness in a different way."
Bastida says the project has given her renewed respect for the lyrical quality of Morrissey's work, as well as its complex musical nature.
"There are songs that can be quite tricky," she says. "There will be a chord, and then a change, and when it comes back it comes back to a different chord. [On] some songs we were like, 'Wait, what happened? Doesn't he come back to this?'"
"There is pressure too," she adds. "We want to be respectful of Morrissey's work. When people are really attached to somebody's work, they love it or hate it when someone does a tribute."
Mexico City-based De la Cueva, who is part of the bands Moderatto and Titan, echoes the sentiment.
"When you do someone else's song, you have to do it right," he says. "But I also feel that you have to make the song your own. I think if we played these songs somewhere in Mexico, where people don't know Morrissey, the music would still resonate."
#MexMoz, as Mexrrissey has hashtagged itself, certainly resonates with crowds. On its recently completed two-week tour through England, the group played to rapturous audiences. It sold out its show at the 2,000-seat Barbican Theatre in London, as well as a show in Manchester, where Morrissey grew up.
"The Manchester show sold out a week in advance," says Andy Wood, founder of Como No, the promotional company that organized the tour. "And you had a great mix: There were some Mexicans from Manchester as well as Morrissey fans from back in the day. You had people singing along in English while the band sang in Spanish. It's kind of been beyond everyone's wildest dreams."
On Sunday, Mexrrissey played a jampacked show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City (an event that one fan took to Twitter to describe as "amozzballs"). This was followed Monday by the gig at the Regent in Los Angeles — the last stop on the tour — which drew lines that wrapped around the block. This should come as no surprise: L.A. is already home to an annual Morrissey convention, regular Morrissey karaoke nights (a.k.a. "Morrisseyoke") at Eastside Luv in Boyle Heights, and even a successful Morrissey theater festival, held for the first time last November, also in Boyle Heights.
"We wanted to end the European tour in Manchester and the U.S. tour in Los Angeles," says Lara. "These are the meccas of Morrissey."
Los Angeles fans welcomed the band with open, screaming arms and plenty of singing along (even if the sound quality at the concrete-lined Regent threatened to overwhelm the singers' voices). There were hipsters and Chipsters (Chicano hipsters), old '80s heads and '50s-style pompadours. There was a stand selling T-shirts that read "Girlfriend in a Conga (Es Muy Serio)" and "Taco Is Murder" (a nod to the Smiths' legendary 1985 album, "Meat Is Murder"). Over the stage, there were also some pretty wondrous graphics: Morrissey dressed up as Frida Kahlo, in Day of the Dead face paint, with iconic Mexican musicians pouring out of his skull.
Nery Gabriel Lemus is an L.A. artist who has been a fan of the Smiths and Morrissey since he was 13. He has the albums, and he's been to Morrissey concerts. He attended the show on Monday because he's a "Moz" fan, but also because he was curious to see what this hybrid of Manchester melancholia and Mexican charro pants might produce.
"Culture," he says, "is not a fixed thing."