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Column: LA/LA Land – a benefit with a message

Punk rock, serious opera and a dancing cowboy in PJ’s:  a benefit with a message

During the day, if you drive by the address listed for the Echoplex music venue on Glendale Blvd where it passes under Sunset all you see is a blue painted tattoo parlor, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and a parking lot. If you come back at night you get an inkling that something is going on because the parking lot gate is now guarded by a large, affable man with a beard sitting on a stool. If you ask him where the Echoplex is, he will point to a dark area in the back wall of the tattoo building next to a shiny wooden fence, look at your I.D. and snap a paper bracelet on your wrist.

The indicated darkness is actually an entrance inside of which another affable man with a beard checks your ticket and points you toward a black metal door that opens into a huge black cave. Once your eyes adjust you make out a high ceilinged room that holds north of 500 people, a glass-enclosed tech booth, two bars, and a large stage with every light known to rockdom. You have arrived at the Echoplex for #TurnItUp, a benefit for Mexico City and the people of Puerto Rico, delivered along with a message of love, resistance, and tolerance.

Thirteen artists, bands, poets, and provocateurs took the stage (and in one case, the floor), in a long night of entertainment in Spanish and English with a fundraising goal and a epistle of defiance, sometimes delivered with sweetness and sometimes with anger. While the artists and bands on stage Thursday night were raising money for the victims of natural disasters, they were inveighing against the victims of prejudice, sexism, and abuse – a linkage that worked well.

Each artist played a four- song set or read poetry or performed a comedy routine. Alice Bag kicked off the night with powerful electric punk that distilled anger and hope together and got people grooving to the music and nodding to the message. Most moving for me was Irene Diaz, alone onstage with just her guitar – no partner Carolyn Cardoza on the ukulele, no band, no piano – just her filling the cavernous room with a heart-lifting sound unbelievable from someone not quite 5 feet tall.  

Maya Jupiter changed the tempo, told us she came to LA from Australia temporarily but after a husband, two children and 9 years it looks like she is staying, and then delivered a sharp  message with “Never Said Yes,” her famous rap about sexual assault, consent, and women’s rights. Taking over from Maya was the 6 foot + tall  Puerto Rican drag queen, singer, dancer, choreographer, and makeup artist Jessica Wild, who went to episode 7 on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Jessica  (José David Sierra) wowed the crowd onstage with dance moves and songs in English and Spanish and then jumped down to the floor, pulled men and woman out the crowd for dances, selfies and occasional pecks on the cheek.  .

Musician, comedian, and university Lecturer Monica Palacios kept the message going with her own laugh-filled stories of being louder, browner, and queerer, setting up the room for one the night’s highlights, opera singer, and performance artist Dorian Wood.

Dorian Wood is an over 6-foot tall black mountain of a man. His friendly demeanor offstage is transformed by costume and makeup onstage into a mythic hero/heroine presence who shook the walls with tenor notes. Rolling Stone’s description of Wood as “transcendental and unclassifiable” was an understatement.

The crowd cheered wildly when a four-piece classical string ensemble paved the way for his dramatic entrance, and then was deadly quiet as his voice rose and soared and sailed through the room with aria’s from his latest album Xalá. While his Spanish conversation between songs repeated the message of tolerance, his very presence said I’m here and I am proud and no one can take that away from me or anyone like me.

Everyone took a breath at end of Wood’s set, but not for long because a majestic tall woman in a defiant red dress, gold shoes, and crimson electric guitar strode purposefully on stage took the mic and delivered a commanding message about domestic violence, a subject she knows from personal experience. Lysa Flores, actress, model, guitarist, singer/songwriter whose works include Tree of Hope, It Hurts to Be Your Girl and Immigrant Daughter sent waves of guitar notes and dead-on lyrics rolling off the stage.

There was no letup in either the intensity or the message as Teri Gender Bender, internationally known guitarist of Le Bucheretts took over the stage and peeled out metal riffs along with hatchet-edged lyrics and foot-stomping beats in a body-bending  performance that said girrlpower and love together.

After that the audience really needed a break, which was happily provided by AB Soto, a queer artist and musician, born in the US of Mexican parents and raised in East Los Angeles who appeared onstage in pajamas, cowboy shirt and hat, and white codpiece flanked by the Cha Cha Bitches dancers. The songs and moves and words were hilarious and right on the message of the night. And they were a perfect entree for #TURNITUP’s final act, La Victoria, a female Mariachi trio known for their musical chops, infectious laughs and just plain joy, all in evidence.

Of all the places to be in LA Thursday night, the Echoplex was arguably the most fun. #TURNITUP not only raised badly needed money for two Latin capitals, but it drove home the message that the Latino-American community — at least in Los Angeles — is moving past macho, and what better way to do than with punk rock, opera and dancing cowboys in their PJ’s.

Patrick O’Heffernan

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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