Chicano Batman (photo: Robert Alleyne)
To my eye, at least one-in-three audience members in Chicano Batman’s San Francisco crowd was wearing Chicano Batman merch. Excited fans––families, couples, groups of friends, and dedicated singles abounded––crowded into the Fillmore on Friday of last week. Perhaps I have seen the Fillmore as full, but I have never seen it alight with energy and expectation as it was on Friday night; the official release date of Chicano Batman’s latest album, Freedom is Free, and one of the later dates on the west coast leg of their 2017 tour, the night was a special one for the band, and for their fans. Next to me, a group from East LA confessed that they had driven eight hours just to follow the band to San Francisco.
And the crowd made the most of Chicano Batman’s performance, dancing and hugging throughout the set. This was no punk or rock concert, though Chicano Batman’s music certainly draws from both, and in place of aggressive mosh pits were twirling friends and fancy footwork. Neither the band nor the crowd lagged through the performance. And as the music crescendoed towards their last song, Bardo Martinez––lead vocalist, guitarist, and organist for the band––thanked the audience: “There’s so much love in The Bay,” he said. With hands up in the air, Martinez continued, “We got the people power.”
Freedom is Free is an ambitious album, highlighting Chicano Batman’s powerful guitar driven melodies as in previous work, but also providing more subtle tempo changes and glossy production. On the album, and during their performances, Chicano Batman sings in a mixture of Spanish and English. Language is not the only fluid element of their music, and onstage the band deftly switches between up-beat tropicália and bass-heavy soul.
Along with newer songs Freedom is Free, Chicano Batman played older hits, which were met with waves of approval from the audience. The band has been playing together since 2008, and it shows––they are energetic and tight-knit onstage, and intent and exacting composers. They were joined on Friday by SadGirl and 79.5, of Los Angeles and Brooklyn respectively, who also graced the stage with ambitious, technically-interesting, and honestly FUN performances.
It’s worth noting that, though a practiced, compelling, and talented band, Chicano Batman lacks press attention, perhaps because most of their career they’ve been labeled as “alternative latinx.” In California, latinx culture is “alternative” only in the way that POC are “alternative” to whiteness, colonialism, and oppressive forces, and, quite frankly, though the band occasionally sings in Spanish, they are part of a long line of innovative American musicians. If you don’t know Spanish and you live on California soil (@ me), I think you should feel pretty comfortable sometimes feeling left out, seeing as American English and American accents are forces both used to empower privileged Americans and dis-empower those with “alternative” languages and accents.
On Friday night, I left the Fillmore with my emotional tank two hours more full. Even if Freedom is Free, the creative and inventive labor Chicano Batman puts into their performances is certainly worth paying for.