Burgers, beer, tequila, and world-class jazz. What more could you want?
El Bar Co. is pretty much what it sounds like – a bar, only bigger because it’s a company. Located on Carretera Oriente, the frontage road paralleling the main drag through Ajijic – known colloquially a “The Carretera” – it is flanked by the El Sombrero Restaurant on one side and a deli on the other, which is actually part of El Bar Co. There is a furniture factory in the back that makes leather and tree bark chairs and tables for bars and restaurants in Mexico. I think the factory is temporarily on hiatus, but it is hard to tell at night.
Inside, El Bar Co. is cavernous. You walk through a narrow outdoor veranda with tables full of regulars nursing beers and gossip, into a vast room with a wrap-around bar and the wine racks of the deli on one side and tables in a sunken area on the other. A high-boy long table sits opposite the bar where you will usually find the owner, with a beer and one of his kitchen’s excellent burgers.
Past that is a generous stage – big enough to comfortably fit a 5 to a 7-piece band and maybe 10 musicians squeezed in tightly with much laughter and maybe a mic stand on the floor in front of the stage. Lighting is multicolored LEDs – not great for video, but good for atmosphere. Keep walking through the dance floor to the other side of the stage and there are more tables, stretching back as far as you can see. I think there is a pool table back there, but I have never ventured that far, and there is an upstairs – a world I have yet to visit.
Wednesday night was an all-star jazz night at El Bar Co., usually know for raucous rock by the likes of Tommy Banks and Diana Terry with gyrating couples, singles and groups movin’ and groovin’ and throwing down beers and tequilas (not shots – we like our tequila alive in Mexico, we don’t shoot it, as the Governor of Jalisco state, the home state of the town of Tequila, once told me).
The band was Pan- American. Assembled by my friend Juan Castañon Acasia, one of Mexico’s best jazz guitarists who happens to live here, drummer Alex Medeles from Mexico, keyboard artist Ronald Rivero from Cuba, and Venezuelan Freddy Adrian on electric standup bass. You knew this was special because Castañon put it together and he has a history of assembling out of this world experimental jazz groups in both Lakeside and the underground (literally!) jazz clubs in Guadalajara. Also, a 100-peso cover charge was a strong signal that this was not your usual walk-in-and-dance local band.
And it sure wasn’t. I am continually amazed at the level of musical talent in small-town Mexico. Obviously, a big city of 8 million like Guadalajara with a nightclub and music venue district that mirrors Hollywood, multiple arenas that see rock bands like Billie Elish, Backstreet Boys, Billy Idol, and Black Flag, and the annual FIMPRO Latin American International Music Convention, can be expected to see the best artists in the world – and it does. But in a little town of 10,000 in the mountains an hour away, you also find world-class artists like Castañon and touring musicians like the quartet at El Bar Co.
The band played two sets, heavy with long-form ( 10 minutes or more) original pieces, led by Castañon. No dancing – not that kind of night, but a transfixed audience in their socially distanced tables (some even with masks up between gulps of beer or bites of burger). Riveros’ piano drove many of the songs, alternating with Castañon’s guitar. But there were plenty of solo opportunities for Adrian’s bass and Medeles’ drums. The bass solos were especially exciting – not a word usually used for bass riffs– as Adrian bent over his slender, open- bodied instrument and shot out long, blindingly fast high tempo riffs. Mendeles flowed up and down both the scales on his drums and their presence in the songs, moving out with machine-like efficiency on the snares in solos and hitting you in the gut with cowbells – which I never could see, but I heard. And he did it all with a 100-watt smile while he played.
Overall, Wednesday night at El Bar Co. was magical. While DJ’s spun the latest electronica and trance numbers at the Mezcaleria across town, and blues and reggae poured out of The Meraki downtown, and classic rock got people dancing at Adelita’s, El Bar Co. delivered world-class jazz with burgers and beer and local tequila. What more could you want?