From grenade launchers to tubas -- Radio Rey presents a crash course in today's Mexican pop

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Gerardo Ortiz Photo courtesy of MM Group Entertainment

Accordions and tubas are the new guitars and 808s.

At least, that’s the sense you get listening to Regional Mexican radio, the broadcast format where accordion-led norteño bands and big brass bandas deliver pop hits as catchy and stomping as anything on the English-language airwaves. The songs on stations like St. Paul’s “Radio Rey” (630 AM/94.9 FM) rack up millions of YouTube clicks because their subjects -- love and partying, immigration and Mexican drug cartels -- resonate with millions of Americans. This weekend, Radio Rey brings five of the format’s biggest acts to Aldrich Arena in Maplewood, and the lineup is a state of the scene in microcosm.

Centering this musical universe like our flat Earth is Gerardo Ortiz, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter from Southern California by way of Sinaloa. Earlier this decade Ortiz came up through the ranks of the “Movimiento Alterado,” a now passé posse of ultraviolent horror corrideros. (You can catch him bragging about his grenade launcher and torture methods on the jaunty 2010 waltz “El Comando del Diablo.”) Since surviving a 2011 assassination attempt, Ortiz has grown less graphic but more ambitious. In his career-igniting 2013 hit “Dámaso,” Ortiz likened himself to a young Sinaloa Cartel official, claiming Dámaso López’s narco authority like a rapper shouting out Scarface. Throughout “Dámaso,” relentless horn fanfares tangle with implicit moral dilemmas, neither giving any quarter. It may be the greatest single released this decade.

This year alone, Ortiz has charted with two solo romantic ballads, a gorgeous bachata collaboration with Prince Royce, and a shit-kicking party duet with indie corridero Omar Ruiz. Love him or hate him, his recent blockbuster albums signify like Kendrick Lamar’s in rap or Miranda Lambert’s in country: state of the art, too long by half, and setting the conversation for everyone in the genre.

Riding his nepotistic wave are younger brother Kevin Ortiz and cousin Regulo Caro. Kevin’s OK; he does straightforward banda and norteño about love and partying, but check out his sleek look on the cover of 2016 album Mi Vicio y Mi Addición. Perfect hair, aviator shades, jacket over a t-shirt, and no cowboy hat for miles around -- Kevin’s “vicio” owes more to Crockett and Tubbs than to Carlos y José.

Caro is the more interesting artist, though. As a songwriter, he inhabits a world of different characters, from terrorists to overbearing and profane Mexican madres. In his 2014 breakthrough hit “Soltero Disponible,” he was an obnoxious sugar daddy, shaming an ex for the new ass he financed. His narco songs are also thornier affairs than cousin Gerardo’s. Where Ortiz revels in the narco’s fortune and fame, Caro would rather meditate on time spent in prison, or on the anxious calculations of a new boss. His songs can be, as they say, problematic. In the norteño version of Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, Gerardo Ortiz is Elvis while Caro is a smirking Randy Newman.

This does not necessarily mean La Séptima Banda is The Band. On the one hand, they sometimes share the Canadians’ obsession with Americana -- their recent hit single “Yo Si Me Enamoré” is a swinging doo-wop ballad scored for brass and clarinets. On the other hand, the song’s video is set inside a Johnny Rockets novelty diner, which, as Robbie Robertson will tell you, does not authentically encapsulate the Myth of America. No matter. La Séptima Banda’s A Todo Volumen was one of 2016’s best pop albums, and better than most Band albums: ten songs, nine of them under three minutes, their banda arrangements sparkling with hooks and creativity and a variety of rhythms. The highlight is “Que Perrón,” a grateful cumbia dedicated to sexually assertive mujeres in which one of the banda sheepishly admits, “Yo soy feo.” It’s a very Levon Helm moment.

Standing apart from this lot are Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes, the only one of these acts without a drummer. This young trio plays Sierreño music, lead and rhythm guitars plus a tuba, a style that’s only become popular in the past two years. Despite sounding old as the hills, the tuba/guitar interplay is a relatively recent phenomenon. Yes, this is youth music, fueled by online streaming and performed by teens and twenty-somethings.

Chaidez is one of the teens. He assumes the coveted position of DEL Records’ Token Sierreño Artist from 20-year-old José Manuel López Castro, who recently left the label amid charges of “explotación.” López Castro had himself taken over for Ariel Camacho in 2015, when the 22-year-old star died in a car accident. The one constant among these Sierreño groups is spectacular tubist Omar Burgos, whose flamboyant syncopations serve as bass line and lead instrument at once. His endless bag of tricks livens up the group’s material, even staid ballads like their current radio hit “Te Regalo.” Musical styles come and go, but peacocking your chops is eternal.

Gerardo Ortiz
With: Regulo Caro, Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes, La Septima Banda
When: 9:00 p.m. Sat. April 22
Where: Aldrich Arena, Maplewood
Tickets: 16+; $50; more info here


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