.A Gringo’s Stage Dive into Rock en Español with Alex Lora’s El Tri

It never fails.

Whenever a foreign interviewer questions Alex Lora, the leader of Mexico’s oldest and most famous rock band, they ask the same thing.

“So, you are the Mexican Rolling Stones?”

“No,” replies the long-haired frontman, who has toured and recorded for 55 years and still fits into the clothes he wore in high school.

“The Rolling Stones are the British El Tri.”

There’s not as much hyperbole there as one might think.

El Tri began as a trio (hence the name) in 1968—the same year San Jose State athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists at the Mexico City Olympics. In Mexico City that year, government forces gunned down scores of students in Tlatelolco protesting its spending on the international sports competition. 

The political turmoil fueled a nascent Mexican counterculture that came into full expression at the 1971 Festival Rock y Ruedas de Avándaro, Mexico’s answer to Woodstock. The event, which drew 650,000 people, launched El Tri to prominence. 

El Tri still plays to stadiums around the world and releases new music yearly. Last year the group played to 200,000 people in Peru and 120,000 people outside Dodgers stadium in Los Angeles.

They are featured in the Rolling Stones’ last movie, Havana Moon, and guitarist Ron Wood shoots pool with Lora in Mexico City. They co-headlined a show with the Stones, and Keith Richards wore an El Tri shirt after El Tri got called back for an encore, pretty unusual at a Stones concert.

Their relentless touring schedule has them opening, on June 22, the 2024 season of San Jose’s Music in the Park, an event Metro produces through an affiliated company. No strangers to the city, they were the first band to play the newly remodeled San Jose Civic Auditorium in 2005.

Unlike the Stones, they can’t stop touring and putting out new music. They are road warriors as in love with rock as are their fans. They play more than 150 shows a year, which keeps them in tight form.

I didn’t realize just how skilled they were until I caught their sound check at San Francisco’s Fillmore, where they pulled out, for fun, tunes by the Allman Brothers, Sonny Boy Williamson and the Dead, sounding like carbon copies of the originals.

Two months ago, they played to 50,000 people at Los Angeles’ La Fiesta Broadway street fair. And this month El Tri released a new single,Yo Quiero Ser Tu Celular (I Want to be Your Cell Phone), with lyrics that reflect Lora’s tongue-in-cheek way of making ordinary observations extraordinary.

He sings in Spanish over hard rock music reminiscent of Van Halen:

I want you to worry about me

When you can’t find me

I want your life to revolve around me

And ask me for everything

I want to entertain you and make you laugh

And help you forget your sorrows

I want to direct you where you need to go

And clarify all your doubts

Bar Band Gone Big

The Washington Post says the band “remains rough-edged musically and intensely local in its lyrics, suggesting a neighborhood bar band gone big.” Is there a better definition for great rock and roll?

Lora’s early influences include the great Chicago bluesmen, and like the English rock stars, he took their Southern-based style and made it his own.

I came upon them 24 years ago when I was the music critic at the San Jose Mercury News and their manager at the time, Jason Garner, kept asking me to listen to them, promising me I’d like them.

Back then my job included previewing some 50 new CDs a week and having failed Spanish in high school, I didn’t think I could give them a fair shake, especially with so many competing albums in English.

But one day I finally popped on their disc, Fin de Siglo, which translates to End of the Century, and within two songs I was hooked. The crunchy guitars got me, as they weaved in and out like they were sewing a tapestry—and yes, they brought to mind the best days of the Rolling Stones, when Mick Taylor and Keith Richards made bulletproof music.

And then there was Lora’s voice, which brought to mind the scraping edge of AC/DC with the aching dirty passion of Howling Wolf. The whole sound was like the best DIY rock music of the ages, like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Who or the Doors and ZZ Top, uncorrupted by commercialism.

They included a harmonica player, Rafael Salgado, who is instrumental to Lora’s blues roots, and a brilliant and seductive female singer: Lora’s wife, Chela, who met him when she was a journalist doing an interview. The current band also includes keyboardist Lalo Toral, who has been with Lora since the start; guitarists Eduardo “Lalo” Chico and Oscar Zarate; bassist Charlie Valerio and drummer Felipe Chacon.

Gained in Translation

Even before I understood the double and triple entendres in their lyrics, I was hooked.

The first song on Fin de Siglo, their 15th release, is “Todo me sale mal” (Everything I Do Comes Out Wrong). It has a beat like “Roadhouse Blues” but lyrics that mix the blues with humor, defying authority and expectations, which is Lora’s trademark. He challenges the strict conventionalism of Mexican society.

As I listened for the first time, I kept thinking, “Who are these guys— and how have I never heard them before?”

It was an awakening to a huge unnoticed world. I remember thinking, what if the Beatles had sung in Greek or the Stones in Portuguese? Would anyone who speaks only English have heard of them? How much rock history would have been lost?

I called their manager soon after hearing the disc and arranged an interview. The 20 minutes I was scheduled to talk to Lora turned into three hours and began a long friendship of shared music. After a  night of jamming in their manager’s San Jose home, Lora invited me to play harmonica with them at Shoreline Amphitheatre in front of 25,000 people the next night.

Yikes!

Despite almost fainting when they handed me a microphone, it worked and taught me more about making rock music than anything I’d done before or since. I couldn’t sleep for days afterwards, and when I asked Lora what it felt like to do that night after night, his answer was “It’s like making love to 25,000 people at the same time.”

I get it now. I understand why so many great performers don’t ever want to stop. There’s no high like it.

Their music inspired me to go to Mexico and take immersion courses in Spanish, in large part so I could understand his lyrics.

One of the funniest moments was when one of my prim and proper teachers was too embarrassed to translate some of them for me. (In Todo me sale mal, he sings about a fart that left a present in his underwear.)

Rock Underground

But like everything about one of Mexico’s greatest songwriters (and one of the greatest in all rock and roll, a point on which Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner, in an email, agreed), Lora loves contradictions. In most of his shows he has a traditional dancer in indigenous garb reminding la raza mas chida (the coolest race) of their ancient history.

Bucking some tradition, but paying homage to others. He sings raucous songs about pimps, Viagra, smoking weed and getting drunk. But he also has tender ones about abandoned children, the Pope and the Virgin Mary, and about people confined to wheelchairs. He slams the Mexican government, but he deeply loves the country.

In the 1974 song “Abuso de autoridad” (“Abuse of authority”), the government was openly criticized, a risky move back then 

To live in Mexico is the worst

Our government is wrong

And nobody can go mad

Because they shut you up

Nobody wants to go out anymore

Nor do they want to tell the truth

Nobody wants to get in trouble

with the authority

On the tender side, he wrote a powerful song about the invisible victims of 9/11, the undocumented busboys whose families were offered no financial settlements for their deaths, while American citizens were given millions. After the song was released, those families were also paid.

The ironies abound in his work. In the song “Oye Cantinero” or “Hey, Bartender,”  he sings about sitting in a bar celebrating all of his great drunken nights and asking for his glass to be filled.  Only, at the end of the song, you realize he’s in a mental institution talking to his shrink. 

Lora is a musical shock jock, managing to offend the politically correct whenever he can. He sings mostly for a working-class audience and loves to be rebellious.

In a recent interview I asked him what he thought of Mexico’s new president, not only the first woman but the first person of Jewish descent to hold the office. I figured he’d be excited at what looked like a major change.

“Different person, same shit,” he answered.

When you look back on the band’s history, you understand his skepticism. El Tri started in 1968, playing the grungiest clubs around the poorest parts of Mexico City. In 1971, after the government saw the rebellious nature of the music and felt threatened by it, even as it fueled movements in the States, it was largely banned and restricted after the big Avandero concerts.

“From 1971 to the middle of the ’80s rock and roll survived in the underground,” Lora says. “El Tri kept the light on in the underground.”

CHIDO AMIGOS Alex Lora and the author on the road outside Fresno heading toward a gig.

They played three shows on Sundays in clubs they called “funky holes.” The drums weren’t miked. The equipment was trashy. Shows weren’t announced in advance and fans had to be alert to find them.

One club was on the site of an old coal mine and when they played it, they were covered in coal dust. Everyone who saw them outside knew where they had been playing.

Chilangos Abroad

As they began to get popular, they got signed by an American record label and used an English name, Three Souls in My Mind. They released two albums and had a minor hit song called “Let Me Swim,” recorded in a Los Angeles studio owned by the Beach Boys.

It was enticing for them up to a point. Lora realized his real fans couldn’t sing along with the English songs, so they dropped the pretense and changed their name to El Tri, which was what their fans called them anyway because that’s how they pronounced three.

“In my mind, because if you knew English well you’d say these fuckers don’t speak English well. If they spoke it well, it would be Three Souls on my Mind. I put it in my mind on purpose to make the guys who really spoke English know we weren’t from the border, we were Chilangos and didn’t speak English as well as the guys from the border.”

Chilango is a reference to Mexico City residents, not always used flatteringly, but Lora says it proudly. In his 2002 song “Chilangolandia” he sums the city up:

“The most beautiful, the most dangerous

The most loved, the most contaminated

The most populated, the most rock and roll.”

Eventually, rock became more mainstream and dozens of bands followed their path, including Maná, Caifanes, Jaguares, Maldita Vecindad. Almost any Mexican rock band you talk to today credits Lora’s influence for breaking the barriers of rock in Spanish and making it as popular as its English counterpart.

Amazingly, the band has released 53 albums in its five-plus decades. You can track the Mexican diaspora along his tour routes. At first they played New York, Texas, Chicago and California. Now you can see them fill concert halls in Omaha, Atlanta and Minneapolis—anywhere hard work is being done and fans want to feel their homeland’s roots.

Working-Class Hero

To travel with El Tri is like joining the circus. At the Orange County airport, they shut down the McDonald’s so the workers could get the Tri members’ autographs. We’ve played the Nokia Theaters on both coasts;  the L.A. Sports Arena (where Alex introduced me as Van Morrison’s brother); the Salinas Rodeo and the Hammerstein Ballroom, across the street from Madison Square Garden. 

I’ve shared the stage with some famous musicians, including harmonica players Lee Oskar and Billy Branch, Sammy Hagar, Jerry Donahue of the Hellacasters, Seymour Duncan (who designed Jimi Hendrix’s effects pedals) and Javier Bátis (who taught Carlos Santana to play guitar). I also became friendly with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, who is a Tri fan and talked about doing a tour as Tri and the Top.

I always wanted to lay back and tried never to step in front of Alex on stage, partly because I once read an article saying no one ever steps in front of Mick Jagger. Turns out Alex is the opposite. He always tells me to keep on playing and he pushes me out in front of him or puts his arm around me. He’s happy to share, which for me is the sign of a great and confident musician.

Photo of Alex Lora giving a thumbs up sign on an urban street
TAKING MANHATTAN Alex Lora and El Tri have a huge following in New York, where they played the Nokia Theater in Times Square. Photo by Brad Kava

Lora knows who made him what he is and spends hours signing autographs at each show. One night before a San Jose gig we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant at Oakridge Mall. Dinners with the band and friends are long, three hours at least. And when we got out there were some 1,500 people politely waiting in the parking lot. He spent hour after hour signing cars, photos and bodies.

The band’s favorite U.S. restaurant on tour is Denny’s because the minute they walk in it transforms into a gourmet experience. Chefs come out and ask Lora what he would want to eat and they come up with specialties not on the menu.

It says a lot about Lora, a rock star like few others. He treats his audience and the working people we meet on tour like they are the stars. At the annual NAMM music seller’s convention in Anaheim, he spends more time talking to the janitors than to the instrument makers soliciting him or the other stars wanting to chat. He makes the invisible people around us visible.

He also keeps ticket prices reasonable (Music in the Park tickets have been $35 and $40, and will be $45 at the door), so that unlike the Stones, whose prices have soared, his audience includes all ages, including kids. He puts people with disabilities up front. He did a song and tour to raise money for people in wheelchairs and the upcoming San Jose show will have deaf interpreters to help people who can feel and see the musicians understand what they are saying.

Lora wrote one of my favorite songs about overlooked people called “Nosotros Los Latinos” (“We the Latinos”), released when the entertainment world was swooning over Ricky Martin and J.Lo and calling it the “Year of the Latino.”

He sings, (translated): 

We are the force that has made America

The greatest power in the world

Thanks to our work, to our clinging

To our effort and our desire to progress

Well, we are the workforce that has made them strong.

We the Latinos are hot

We are the raw material that has made them rich

And all they have and all they are

It’s thanks to us 

We work their lands

We are the ones who fatten their cattle

And just as we want to learn English

They should also try to learn Spanish

When he started out, Lora never thought it would last. To what does he attribute his decades of success?

“We sing about things that are true,” he says. “And because I’m stubborn and I always keep going. We wrote some of these songs 50 years ago and kids 8 years old sing them like they were written a week ago. The song I wrote about the cell phone, in 20 years maybe people will still be listening to it, unless they’ve got some new device.”

El Tri opens Music in the Park’s 2024 season June 22, 5-10 pm, at Plaza de Cesar Chavez in downtown San Jose. Tickets at eltrisanjose.com.

Two tastes of El Tri:

1 COMMENT

  1. Certainly, Brad Kava, El Tri de México Is the banda More Cool and legendary. Very much interesting your note. Thank you!

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