Linda Ronstadt has donned and discarded about as many musical hats as Imelda Marcos had shoes--traversing opera, musical theater, folk-rock, new wave, retro-rock, country and '40s standards. But none has fit her so well as the sombrero she adopted with her 1987 "Canciones de Mi Padre" album, singing mariachi music and other traditional Mexican styles.
While her powerful voice might not have negotiated the subtleties of the late Nelson Riddle's arrangements during her torch-singer phase, it is perfectly suited to the expansive drama and emotion of the Spanish-language mariachi music.
Performed Saturday in the Fiesta Mexicana at the Pacific Amphitheatre, the lyrics to one of Ronstadt's numbers, "Canciones Mexicana," declared, in Spanish, "My whole body starts to shake over these songs." On the main, Ronstadt's delivery was less spirited than when she began championing this music four years ago, but there were still some powerful moments.
Her "Mas Canciones" (More Songs) were delivered in five segments, mixed in the 2 1/2-hour program with equally sterling performances by Los Campaneros de Nati Cano (the premiere L.A.-based traditional music troupe, led by Cano, who is the director of UCLA's mariachi program), Los Tres Reyes and traditional dancers, including a remarkable lasso dance. The well-paced show employed inventive backdrops--one was a replication of a Mexican town on a starlit night--and costumery (Ronstadt herself went through five outfits).
The program opened with Cano's 13-piece band singing and playing a variety of traditional tunes on their acoustic instruments, including violins, trumpets, guitars and a harp. The standout of their first set was "El Nino Perdido" (The Lost Child), in which a strident rhythm broke for a pair of trumpets--one of the players surprisingly turning up in the audience--to serenade each other with lines which were alternately mournful or whimsical, including the Woody Woodpecker theme. "La Boda," meanwhile, proved a playful, high-spirited mini-symphony.
Cano's group also backed Ronstadt for her performance, except for four songs she did with the vocal/guitar trio of Los Tres Reyes.
Aside from a sometimes muddled enunciation revealing that she wasn't singing in her first language (of Mexican-German parentage, she doesn't actually speak much Spanish), Ronstadt's vocals were sparkling, full of growl and fire on the show-closing belter "La Charreada," and coming out in broken sobs on "Gritenme Piedras del Campo." As she pleaded her woe over an indifferent lover, band members, shouting into their amplified violins, cajoled, "Don't suffer so much!" On other numbers they yelled, "Go on, because you're hot!," something Riddle sure never did.
Ronstadt did indeed kick the temperature up on the heated ballad "Por Un Amor" and the feisty "La Cigarra," a vocal tour de force on which her voice bounded wide intervals to arrive at full-throated high notes she then held for the better part of forever.
Backed by Los Tres Reyes, she put a candle-lit fire into the somber "Tata Dios"--flanked by dancers in a funeral processional--and the tragic "Crucifijo," with her vocal taking the part of a jilted lover contemplating her sadness before the image of Christ.
True to the "Mas Canciones" title of her show, 12 of the songs weren't from the "Canciones de Mi Padre" album, suggesting she might be readying a second mariachi disc. But her performance at times seemed detached, as if she's already thinking of new genres to assay. Ronstadt scarcely spoke a word to the audience, and her singing didn't entirely bridge that communication gap. Resultingly, though the performance had moments of real fire, it also often had a distant quality. The audience, while attentive and appreciative, responded almost more as though watching a film than a live performance.
Times Orange County correspondent Rose Apodaca contributed to this story.