When will the world wise up to Chicano Batman? It’s rare that a band so utterly in step with the moment can also fly so low under the radar. The four-piece group from Los Angeles has been making, for lack of a better term, sensual psychedelia for a decade, but the release of their third album, 2017’s “Freedom Is Free,” was the moment when they really told us what time it was.
Based in East L.A., Chicano Batman delivers a smooth, seductive sound that’s stone classic — an irresistible retro modern mashup, equal parts Brazilian Tropicalia, Colombian cumbia and vintage garage freak-out, with nods of respect paid to spiritual godfathers like El Chicano and The Premiers. Up top, they are as smooth as a breezy Sunday afternoon jam session barbecue at Griffith Park, practitioners of one nation under a groove — the latest link in the chain of L.A.’s brown-eyed-soul legacy. But underneath the surface lies some heavy consciousness and knowledge.
Chicano Batman is a perfect reflection of L.A in the age of Trump, a place that prides itself on its independence from the deplorable fray, but whose large minority communities still feel the heat of discrimination on a daily basis. When you commit and take that deep dive, the band can be transformative — a bright, psychedelic mirror into the Latino community.
A track like “Angel Child” careens from heavy prog to refried-Meat Puppets giddy-up to slow jam, highlighted by guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Bardo Martinez’s heavenly falsetto. But other songs venture squarely into the darkness of the minority experience in the 21st century.
“La Jura,” sung in Spanish by bassist Eduardo Arenas, tackles the institutionalization of police brutality. “Freedom Is Free” is about standing tall in the face of the racist intimidation of the status quo. And the band’s “hit” (at least on public radio), “Friendship (Is a Boat in a Storm),” contains a lilting, infectious melody with a downer message: Trust is a luxury, the exception rather than the rule.
The message may be powerful, but at the moment, Chicano Batman sits in an odd musical purgatory — beloved at home, with some well-earned indie cred (they’ve opened for Jack White and Alabama Shakes), bookings at all the right festivals (Bonnaroo, Coachella) and the requisite love from NPR.
But somehow that adds up to damn near zero visibility outside Los Angeles. That’s something the band was reminded of at the Santa Barbara Bowl in April, shoehorned into the middle slot on a bill fronted by Portugal. The Man. Dusk was still a half hour away when Chicano Batman took the stage, and the crowd, such as it was, was mostly too busy sucking on vapes, chugging overpriced pseudo-craft beer or otherwise too distracted to appreciate the righteous groove. If the audience members had taken notice, they’d have realized that when you lock into Chicano Batman, you’re getting what you want and what you need.
Onstage, the medicine went down nice and easy. Chicano Batman may be throwing down reality, but the sound was pure bliss, a funk/soul/psych workout. As Funkadelic once said, “Free your ass and your mind will follow,” or something like that. Even with a 35-minute slot in daylight, Chicano Batman went to that place of transcendence, a place that’s happy, trippy and sensual.
They performed with an old-school sense of showmanship that can sometimes be lost on fans accustomed to 21st-century spectacle. It all starts with the band’s trademark wedding-band tuxes. It’s a powerful statement — laugh if you must, but we are here to entertain, to blow your minds.
With his elastic, emotive singing, Martinez pushes buttons that can sanctify and seduce an audience, slinking from behind his Korg keyboard (when he wasn’t playing guitar) to opine, plead and karate kick. Those paying attention clearly dug it.
The band did it with nuance and humanity rather than volume and flashing lights, before giving way to corporate alt-rockers Portugal. The Man, who may be bigger in terms of tonnage, but are unquestionably of lighter weight — a fact they effectively camouflaged with volume, lights and projectors. The contrast spoke volumes about where we are as a culture right now.
Erik Himmelsbach-Weinstein is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles.
“Freedom is Free”
- Chicano Batman
- ATO Records
Three Other Chicano Bands That Matter
- War: Killing us with kindness, the Long Beach outfit celebrated streetwise Chicano culture while serving up radio-friendly hits.
- The Brat: An essential voice from L.A.’s punk era, The Brat helped spark the East LA Chican@ scene. Vocalist Teresa Covarrubias presided over traditional punk themes of alienation and isolation from a distinctly Latina perspective.
- Ozomatli: For two decades, the genre-bending, Grammy-winning band’s depictions of Latino life and message of global unity has been filtered through neighborhood rhythms — hip hop, R&B, salsa, merengue and all points in between, in both English and Spanish. Bonus points for their forays into kids’ music, including the score to “Happy Feet 2.”