Usual stretching and squashing of respite over the summer holidays, with the happy result that we had a six-hour slot the other Friday evening. With the children’s Papa’s birthday just round the corner, I offered him first dibs on deciding where we would go. He came up with two alternatives: a gig by a Tex-Mex music outfit that I had never heard of, or an ice-hockey game.
We used to go occasionally to watch the ice-hockey, back in the far-off BC (before children) era. We even took the kids a few times when they were tweens, but Eldest wasn’t desperately bothered, and Grenouille actively disliked the noise and fuss – the loud music, the shouts, the claps and semaphoring to a Queen drum-intro every time the home team scored: “WE will, WE will, ROCK YOU!” (boom, ba-ba-boom). Grenouille doesn’t like popcorn (too dry) or ‘sodas’ (fizz up the nose). When the ‘ordeal’ score outweighed the ‘enjoyment’ one, we gave up. But the thought of a chilly hockey arena didn’t really appeal for a Friday evening. A dose of synthetic southern sunshine sounded more like it.
“They’re called Los Pacaminos,” said P. “I’ve sent you the weblink.”
I had a look. The banner showed a baker’s half-dozen of middle-aged types in Stetsons and denim. ‘Tex-Mex, Border and Americana’ said the first line of the blurb on the home page. Another page mentioned Ry Cooder. That was me sold. I love Ry Cooder: the jaunty bounce in the rhythm, the loping melodies, the swagger and the steel slide, the heartbreak and the sly humour in the lyrics, the gospel-inflected harmonies.
“Deal!” I said to P.
“Hmph,” he said, mock-grumbling. “Just ‘cos you fancy Paul Young.”
This, Dear Reader, was a vile calumny.
“I didn’t realise Paul Young was in there!” I protested, flicking back to the home page and scanning the grizzled faces again. It took me a while to recognise the erstwhile Mr. Wherever-I-Lay-My-Hat in the central figure. “And anyway, I never fancied him, even thirty years ago. Not my type.” P cocked a sceptical eyebrow at me over his phone while ordering the tickets online, but it’s perfectly true: when it comes to southern-accented eighties rockers, my preferred visual aesthetic is a blue-eyed blond with with flowing locks and a razor-sharp jawline (thank-you and goodnight, Mr. Tom Petty), not a brown-eyed, round-cheeked, mulleted brun.
“Blimey, how long is it since we went to an actual gig?” I added.
“Apart from that Kate Rusby Christmas thing, about twenty years, if you don’t count Jon and his mates’ bashes.”
“Jon’s mates’ bashes definitely count. They’re excellent.”
Jon is a very accomplished guitarist who must have put in his 10,000 hours on fretboard and plectrum several times over, and my friend Ruthie’s husband. Their sitting-room is decorated throughout with Jon’s guitars, hanging on the walls and propped on stands – Strats and Les Pauls, genuine and copies, solid- and hollow-bodies, an acoustic or two – in a dazzling variety of colours and finishes. But the day-job pays far too well to give up, so Jon plays along to the telly and soundtracks conversations in the evenings, and if you go over at the weekend, you’re quite likely to find that he and some like-minded mates have dragged in amps and drum-kit and are spending a couple of hours messing around playing over old favourites, adding new numbers to their already enormous repertoire, improvising, and generally having fun. Once in a while, they’ll play a party; and every so often, they’ll get a notion for a bigger audience and offer their services for a pub gig as a fundraiser for some local charity. Classic win-win-win: Jon and pals are happy to be heard, the pub is happy to pull in extra punters and the charity is happy to make a bit of dosh: “Don’t forget to buy your raffle tickets! We’ll be doing the draw after the next couple of numbers and it’s for an excellent cause!”
(Although performing brings its own puzzles:
“What shall we call ourselves?”
“We’re a pick-up band, so The Pickups?”
“Not sure I want to associate myself with pickup artists – sounds a bit sleazy, like that American slimeball who teaches coercive chat-up lines to creeps.”
“If you can find another beardie for the front line you can call yourselves ZZ Flop,” said Ruthie, irreverently.
“Don’t tell me, you’re going to say next that the ZZ stands for Zimmer Zimmer.”
“At hhome we would say, you are becoming a hheavy metal band,” said a visiting South American mandolin player.
“You what?” said Jon. “We’re strictly rock and pop, not heavy metal!”
The visitor looked amused. “No, is not the musical style, is the age. It means: silver in the hhair and gold in the teeth!”
“Just as long as it also means: still got lead in your pencils,” said Ruthie, and nearly fell off her perch on an amp, laughing.
“More like ‘iron in the soul’,” muttered Jon.)
The parties and pub ‘dos’ are cheerful, relaxed affairs, as they romp through danceable classics down the decades: Johnny B. Goode, I Saw Her Standing There, Willie and the Hand Jive, She Loves You, I Feel Good, Mustang Sally, Ever Fallen In Love with Someone, I Knew The Bride, The Locomotion, and dozens of others, with the occasional guest vocalist or shout of ‘Round again!’ if there’s a particularly enthusiastic bop going on.
“Remember that time I got them to do the Q-Tips’ Keep Your Shoes On? All those choppy chords and Whatisname pounding the piano, instead of the brass?”
The Q-Tips, for anybody who’s never heard of them, were a London-based R&B/soul band in the Memphis mould: guitar-bass-drums-keyboard, three-piece horn section, drainpipe trousers and drape jackets, covers of Stax and Motown classics, but also original material and more country numbers – one of their singles was a cover of the Boudleaux Bryant song, Love Hurts, which had featured in the canon of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. And their lead singer was one Paul Young, Esq., in a pre-mullet Beatles cut and velvet cuffs and collar.
As a teenager, I saw the band live when they were supporting The Who and was fairly blown away by them, Stax being just as much my cup of tea as Mr. Cooder. Their singer’s voice was phenomenal. All dark-brown velvet in the middle and coffee-grounds roughness round the edges, it was totally my cup of, well, espresso.
Keep Your Shoes On was my favourite track from their one album. A self-penned, authentically Stax-y sounding soul number, it had a lyric of almost music-hall Britishness, that encapsulated being young and trying to develop your sense of self and of style, in a place where it rained as often as not, and where the public transport you relied on stopped running at midnight.
“If it is Paul Young, at least we know we’ll hear some excellent singing.”
Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case. Not because Mr. Young was in poor voice; I couldn’t really tell you whether he was or not, because the feed from his microphone seemed to be way too far back in the mix. The only time I really heard him singing was when he swapped mikes with his guitarist/singer bandmate, Jamie Moses, adopting a wide-leg stance to lower himself to Moses-mike-height, while Mr. Moses stood on tiptoes and stretched his neck upwards to reach the muddy-sounding centre mike. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
The foyer at the venue was milling with people in cowboy hats. The stage was crammed with serious kit: a row of microphones across the front, a pedal steel stage right, a keyboard stage left and a drum rostrum at the back. Two huge cowboy boots, each about three feet high, flanked the row of monitors across the front. It all looked a bit earnest. Then I spotted a Woody-from-Toy-Story doll sprawled on an amp.
“Do you get the feeling this might be rather fun?”
The house lights went down and the band threaded their way onstage, all wearing ridged cowboy hats and either plaid shirts, or cowboy ones with embroidered yokes. Paul Young’s was of the embroidered variety and, to my amusement, was a darkish brown. He’s definitely into his ‘heavy metal’ period, with a neat silver Imperial and thick steel-grey hair showing under the back of his hat, but if his middle, behind a hollow-body guitar, is rather more padded than it used to be (whose isn’t?), the legs underpinning his six-foot-three frame are still lean as well as long, and were displayed to advantage in dark-indigo slim jeans. The rest of the lineup, read house left to house right, of bassist, pedal-steel player, guitarist, drummer, another guitarist, and keyboard player, were all several inches shorter and – how to put this kindly? – rather stockier, apart from the keyboard player, who had entered bearing a piano-accordion and was of the stick variety of build.
Young introduced the Pacaminos – “We started off as a practice band in 1992 and twenty-five years later we’re still going,” – then a siren-howl on the pedal steel heralded a pounding version of Red Simpson’s Highway Patrol. After that, the evening careered, over-the-limit and frequently on the verge of going out of control, on a wild but hugely enjoyable ride through a medley of classics (the Cooder arrangement of Little Sister, Stoller and Lieber’s Saved, Eddie Deane’s Teardrops Will Fall), and some cracking lesser-known numbers, like Robbie Fulks’ acid-dipped I Told Her Lies, to numerous swerves via Pacaminos’ originals.
It was very like being at one of Jon’s sessions. People swapped instruments while other people kept a rhythm going, there were pauses for banter and mild arguments, an audience member came up on stage and served a round of tequila slammers while being serenaded. “Your turn!” called Moses as empty glasses filled the tray. The tequila server necked her shot with panache. “Style!” yelled Moses. “It’s in her genes!” shouted an audience member. Moses grinned wickedly. “You’ve been in her jeans?” “It’s the genes, genetic!” shouted the heckler. “How would you know, are you related?… You’re her Dad… Oh God… Inappropriate again!” The other Pacaminos doubled up with laughter as Moses doubled up with embarrassment. Although there was no raffle, there were reminders that albums and other merchandise were available for purchase in the foyer: “And we’ll see you out there afterwards! You buy shit, we sign shit!” added Moses.
I liked the Pacaminos’ own songs just as much as the familiar oldies. Poor Boys is a classic tale of a bank heist – that is on the brink of going unclassically wrong, if the cautious getaway driver can’t be persuaded to put his foot down. The Pacaminos’ signature tune, Favourite Things, chugs along cheerfully on internal rhymes; The Girl From Tennessee has the same swing as The Girls From Texas but a different sly take on the battle of the sexes. Then there are the drinking songs: Raised On Margaritas was inspired by the time Young’s then-two-year-old son did a boarding-house-reach across a restaurant table and swiped his mother’s cocktail. Moses’ Battered and Broozed has the same lurching waltz-time as Drunken Nights In The City, but where Miller’s end-of-the-road drinker is all regret, self-recrimination and no redemption, Moses’ is still woozily, if deludedly, optimistic: “Tomorrow I’ll give up the booze/ If I can get sober/ I’ll drag my ass over/ And we’ll raise a small glass or two/ When I get my car back/ I’ll pick up a six-pack/ And drive myself over and drink it with you.”
It was a great evening. Summoned back for an encore, “We’d like to play you the Tex-Mex National Anthem,” said Young, saluting smartly as the band crashed into La Bamba. The audience was reluctant to let them go after that, but Moses demanded that the punters sing for the band, and while the crowd was bellowing “Los Pacaminos! Viva los Pacaminos! Los Pacamiiiiinos! Oh, viva los Pacaminos!” to the tune of Guantanamera, the band slipped quietly away.
We couldn’t stay for the meet-and-greet, but we’ll be back next time “the Pacaminos are passing through”. Probably sporting brimmed hats and Cuban heels, fully-fledged Pacamigos. And I’m more than happy to recommend a dollop of “Pacaminos’ remedy” to anyone who finds it within reach.
In the car going home, though, my linguist’s brain was niggling. “I wonder where that name comes from? I know my Spanish is as rusty as a newly-excavated medieval implement, but I’m sure pacamino doesn’t quite make sense. Camino* means a walk or pathway, but that pa- prefix doesn’t fit in Spanish. In fact, it doesn’t fit in any Romance language – it would have to be pan- or par- to mean something.”
“Mmph,” said P, who finds language fascinating on precisely no levels.
I lapsed into silence, and almost immediately, a mental movie started to play before my mind’s ear and eye. A rehearsal room, a group of friends kicking tunes and ideas (and the odd beer or three) around, and eventually somebody saying, “You know, this sounds really good, I think we should take it out on the road.”
“What’ll we call ourselves? Can’t be anything to do with Paul Young, if people think it’s the Paulie show, they’ll be miffed when they find out he’s doing Nashville and norteño stuff instead of his ballads. They’ll all want their money back, extra-sharpish. We’ll be the fucking Flying Exito Brothers.”
“Nah, they’ll love it. We’ll be packing ’em in. We’ll be Los Pack-em-iiin-os.”
* (as all J4LB’ers will know)