Live from Mexchester
Mexrrissey at the Enmore Theatre, Sydney Festival, 23 January 2016

Photo: Jamie Williams

Morrissey, the bard of Manchester, is big in Mexico. Like, really big – and bigger still in his adopted city of Los Angeles, where a lavishly devoted Mexican-American audience has created karaoke nights, fan conventions, and multiple tribute bands in his honour. In these places, Morrissey’s ballads of exile and loneliness resonate with an audience attuned to melodramatic song forms like corrido and ranchera, tales of doomed love and failed heroism. “I wouldn’t say Morrissey’s songs are about losers,” observed Mexican musician and DJ Camilo Lara in the Guardian last year, “but they are about the people who never win, and unfortunately I live in a country where we always come fourth or fifth in competitions, we are never the stars of the show.”

Lara is the founder of Mexrrissey, a group of Mexican musicians who interpret the songs of Morrissey and The Smiths using instruments like trumpet and vihuela (a kind of guitar), with the lyrics translated into Spanish. On paper it might sound like a horribly kitsch genre collision, but the result is joyous, musically rich and quite original. Mexrrissey are far from your average tribute band – on the stage of the Enmore Theatre these seven musicians are, undeniably, the stars of the show.

They begin with one of Morrissey’s solo numbers, ‘First of the Gang To Die’, now ‘El Primero Del Gang’, a song which narrates the sad tale of Hector, one in a long line of Morrissey’s sweet and tender hooligans. (Note the common Latino name – the song is set in Los Angeles. Morrissey repays the loyalty of his fan base in spades.) Alex Escobar, the group’s trumpet player, creates lovely melodies – his is perhaps the standout musical contribution of the evening. Band member Chetes (a popular Mexican recording artist in his own right) plays a cherry-red Rickenbacker, in the manner of legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, but that’s as close a visual analogue as Mexrrissey get to their founding source – not counting the tongue-in-cheek projections behind them, of Morrissey morphing into Frida Kahlo, and tumbleweeds rolling through the grey streets of Manchester.

Most of the vocals are shared between Chetes and Jay de la Cueva, who are both sweet-voiced – they create harmonies in songs that previously had none. On ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ (‘El Boca’), de la Cueva inspires the audience to a mass singalong, though there are few Spanish speakers present. Half the fun is in trying to identify each song in its new version: ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ becomes a cha-cha, and keyboardist Ceci Bastida takes the lead for a gender-flipped version of ‘Last of the Famous International Playboys’, now ‘International Playgirl’.

There are no real obscurities in the evening’s set, which is largely drawn from Morrissey’s early, best-loved solo singles and The Smiths’ more upbeat tracks. Mexrrissey make no attempt to tackle the luxurious melodrama of a song like ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, for instance, though I’d love them to hear them try. Their confident playing and arrangements underline just how well-written these songs are – I need no reminder that The Smiths will forever be my favourite rock band, but in circumstances such as this, amid hundreds of people dancing, I am happy to be reminded of it. The Smiths are hilarious, you see, which is a secret that only Smiths fans know.   

Mexrrissey end on ‘How Soon Is Now?’ (‘El Hijo Soy’), with a part of the song’s famously massive guitar sound transferred to xylophone (no really, it works), and drummer Ricardo Najera adding suitably grandiose cymbal rolls. At first it seems there will be no encore, though the audience is screaming for one. When the band does reappear, Camilo Lara claims that they don’t really have that many songs, and everyone laughs, thinking he’s joking, until they launch into a second round of ‘International Playgirl’ for want of another song to play. Ah, well – even Morrissey is prone to repeating himself.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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