The Skirball Center’s central courtyard came alive last Thursday night with an appearance by superstar accordionist Flaco Jimenez, backed by Max Baca and Los Texmaniacs. Playing to a lively crowd that took full advantage of the tiny dancefloor between the stage and the front row before spilling into the aisles, the San Antonio- based pair reminded us how this music was played almost a century ago, as well as how seamlessly it can be integrated into other forms. Good-time music will be forever relevant, and hearing it played by some of the finest musicians in the world is a revelation.
Jimenez is a heavyweight of Tex-Mex music, his accordion one of the most essential influences on the conjunto sound over the last seven decades. Through his work with the Texas Tornadoes and Ry Cooder’s Chicken Skin Music band, he is also one of the few accordionists known to American rock fans. But for the bulk of his time onstage, Jimenez plays it much the way one imagines this music was played back in the forties, when his father, Santiago Jimenez, Sr., was among its pioneers.
Much of the set comes from the recently issued Flaco & Max: Legends & Legacies, the recently released album from Smithsonian Folkways that pairs standards like “Margarita, Margarita” with oddities that nevertheless make sense, like a conjunto-ized “In Heaven There Is No Beer”. And it’s great to sat that at 75, the guy’s no slouch. That was easily the best accordion performance I’ve ever seen, the most imaginative, most virtuosic and most joyful.
Baca, the bajo sexto player who came to prominence as a youthful protege and one-time employee of Jimenez, opened the evening with a set of songs from Los Texmaniacs’ own albums. Their set was considerably more diverse, veering into Allmann Brothers-like dueling lines between Baca and his accordionist/ cousin Josh Baca, covers of Marty Robbins and the Texas Tornadoes, some 12-bar blues, some NRBQ-worthy bar rock, all infused with the traditional sound. But when they played it straight, as in a stunning duet between the accordion and the bajo, the audience found itself yanked into the distant past.
It’s been an interesting summer of gigs for me, going to see music I don’t always pay a lot of attention to, played by some of the masters of the form. I plan to start doing this more often, and recommend the experience. This particular show happened to have the benefit of being free (with a parking pass or bus ticket), in a lovely setting at the Skirball, which also invited concert-goers to explore the museum gratis earlier in the day. They offer one of the nicer summer nights out in California with their concert series; a free show with world-class players in a beautiful location is hard to beat. (Click here for info on their upcoming two Thursday evening shows.)