Y La Bamba shines with the eclectic power of culture

Roots and vision

By Rev. Adam McKinney on January 28, 2015

I sometimes feel jealous of those with upbringings that were strongly rooted in tradition. As a child of your standard white parents with no particular ties to religion, all I had to influence my world-view and sensibilities was the passing presence of the ever-morphing popular culture that would beam into my brain. Even St. Patrick's Day - which one could argue might be the only semi-legit event that would tie me to my past (me being a McKinney, after all) - comes and goes with my only reaction being to steer clear of bars. If I ever wanted to create something, the best I could draw from would be a hodgepodge of pop sights and sounds that are no more personal to me than to anyone else.

Artists who are really in touch with their roots and their eclectic cultures, it seems to me, are able to tune into something earthier than any ramblings I could ever think up. At the very least, there seems to be something of that earthy veritas at work with Luzelena Mendoza and her work with Y La Bamba. As noted in her bio, Mendoza grew up in a Catholic setting, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, and with Latin music constantly embracing her. Even as Y La Bamba has grown into something that defies easy categorization as folk or Latin or indie pop or anything else so easy to put your finger on, there's a purity of vision that shines through from the remnants of Mendoza's roots.

It's not surprising to learn that Y La Bamba's records have been produced by the disparate likes of the Decemberists' Chris Funk and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin. The ornate instrumentation calls to mind the revivalist classicism of the Decemberists, as well as the Latin rock of Los Lobos, but the presence of both producers at various points highlights the range and varied output of Y La Bamba. While they are more than comfortable being classical with their interpretations of folk and world music, they thrive in that middle ground, where nothing is too easy to describe, let alone predict.

Standing front and center is Mendoza, buoyed by her exquisitely talented bandmates: Ben Meyercord, Mike Kitson, Eric Schrepel, Paul Cameron and Scott Magee. Mendoza's effortlessly nimble vocals make everything feel like second nature, even as they are surrounded by equally light and fleet instrumentation. With a band as large as this one, it's unlikely that so many cooks in the kitchen will create something that seems both bold and featherweight as Y La Bamba. When things really get cooking, it's never as a result of unearned bombast; the pulsing of the Latin-flavored drums continually push forward the baroque-folk instrumentation and the effervescent vocal harmonies, and when the crescendo happens, there is the sense of true release.

This is the rare band that so deftly balance poise and emotion. Nothing about the formality of the music interferes with the raw feeling that is conveyed. As Y La Bamba have grown and shaped, over the years, they have begun to master the tightrope-walk of musical professionalism and sheer, impacting power. Mendoza fronts the band with sauntering aplomb, even as she reveals depths and weaknesses that make her seem utterly human with a full band shredding behind her back. There's a delicacy to her voice that recalls other revivalists of '30s music, like Jolie Holland, but without the performative edge that calls attention to affectation.

Luzelena Mendoza, as backed by her band, is a force of nature. As a singer and a songwriter, Mendoza comes equipped with a childhood full of mighty tradition and a culture that informs her far past the point of influence - she's moved beyond influence, now using these tools to sculpt her musical future.

Y LA BAMBA, w/ People Under the Sun, Skinwalker, Black Wolf, 9 p.m., Friday, Jan. 30, The New Frontier Lounge, 301 E. 25th St, Tacoma, $5, 253.572.4020