Chicano Batman, the psychedelic band from East Los Angeles, seems to understand that to exist as a Latinx person in the U.S. is to be the product of an amalgam of influences.
Its cinematic sold-out show Friday at the 2,800-seat Fox in Oakland, its largest to date (despite appearances at Coachella and L.A.’s Fonda theater) reflected that reality.
Playing from the 2017 LP “Freedom Is Free” — which boasts smooth, tender soul, a genre Carlos Arevalo fondly recalls as a radio mainstay growing up in L.A. — the band elevated the recorded tracks with even more of Arevalo’s sinewy guitars and vocalist Bardo Martinez’s lush synths, and with an unparalleled cohesion.
Some songs, like “It’s A Balloon,” stretched well past their album length, in the show with a set echoing classically stylish televised soul performances of the 1970s.
The four men — Arevalo and Martinez, Eduardo Arenas on bass and Gabriel Villa on percussion — donned matching ruffled tuxedos, an homage to Los Pasteles Verdes, and the backup singers sported glittering dresses.
The band, which formed in 2008, creates a masterful patchwork of sonic histories of Latin America and beyond. It marries the socially aware and subversive pop of Brazilian tropicalia with wah wah riffs and snaking guitars of chicha — Peru’s psychedelic iteration of cumbia. It pairs the infectious 2/4 drum beat of Colombian cumbia with hypnotizing homages to Led Zeppelin.
Its presence is needed today, as people push for an understanding of Latinx and Xicanx identity beyond the limitations of Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” and the legacy of Tejana queen Selena Quintanilla.
Demonstrating that there is no typical musical upbringing when straddling cultures, Chicano Batman’s music, recorded or live, is like a trip to the borderlands, or even a visit to a space where borders don’t exist.
Friday night’s audience, mostly but not entirely Latinx, clearly enjoyed the journey. Even those in the balcony were compelled to dance.
The concert’s most cutting moments came at the beginning of the encore in “La Jura” (slang for police), a ballad about police brutality and commentary on how black and brown folks are the target of state violence, and how police act as juries before cases go to trial.
Before launching into the song he wrote, Arenas stepped up to the mic and said, “Our cities, Oakland and L.A., have something in common. I dedicate this song to both of our cities.”
The audience stood mournful and reverent as he sang the story of a friend who was killed by police.
The song, like the album, articulates the frustration and resilience of communities of color and marginalized people in the U.S. in the face of today’s tenuous political climate.