It's 9 p.m. on a steamy Thursday in late August, and Disco Rodeo is already so packed you can't move. By 10:15, people are being turned away. Even the balconies are standing room only. The only creatures here with space around them—the giant stuffed animals dangling from the ceiling, like midway toys in a dream—aren't moving at all.
Nearly 3,000 people have turned up tonight to see six transnational bands from both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border. It's the fourth anniversary party of La Ley 96.9 FM, Raleigh's regional Mexican radio station. "Regional Mexican" is a catch-all for many genres, from the hyperactive dance trend called durangense and the pop-leaning grupero to the synthesized tubas of technobanda and the enduring country sound of norteño. La Ley's 100,000 watts reach to Burlington and Lumberton and penetrate 33 miles into Virginia and all the way to the coast.
Local norteño band Los Peligros del Norte warms up the crowd. The Disco Rodeo regulars are working on their demo and open for big-name Mexican acts on tour. Next come Andariego ("Nomad"), whose sweet-faced singer alternates between soft balladry and durangense energy. Folks dizzy to his live rendition of the La Ley radio hit "Te Quiero Mucho."
Tlapehuala Show—easier to say than it is to spell—bring tierra caliente ("hot" music from the southern coast) and technobanda from their homebase of Tijuana. On their heels come the local heroes in Rey Norteño, whose hit track "Raleigh" still gets airplay on La Ley. A pre-recorded sonidero loop introduces the band with ominous snippets of "Carmina Burana" mixed with Jose Alfredo Jimenez's ranchera classic "El Rey."
Rey Norteño stays onstage for the next set to back Lidia Avila, a leggy pop singer formerly with La Onda Vaselina (aka OV7). The airbrushed beauty prances in a well-anchored cowboy hat and weightless mini-skirt, as male fans strain to catch a glimpse.
"I can't wait for Los Primos de Durango. I want to dance!" says a young woman in the ladies room before the final set. Sure enough, the sea of bobbing couples in the middle of the floor starts to boil as the durangense headliners take the stage.
At 1 a.m., before the party is officially over, the crowd is already spilling out into the parking lot. Some line up at the taco truck, others make their way home. By 3 a.m., the last autographs have been signed. It's been a late night for working folks, and a sign of another good year for La Ley.
I could have sworn there were fewer olives in my picadillo at La Fiesta del Pueblo this year; some ambiente was missing. There were fewer stages, fewer performers, fewer vendors. I saw neither an art show nor a soccer tournament. Yet with attractions shrinking, admission jumped from $2 to $5.
It's a pittance toward a good cause, certainly. But trolling past the mountain of corporate sponsorship—including an egregious McDonald's banner in the children's playground, and people waiting in long lines to collect logo-branded frisbees and rucksacks—it begs a question: Has La Fiesta, which began 14 years ago as a free festival for the purpose of community outreach, arrived at the crossroads of identity crisis?
Musically speaking, unknown bands from out of state don't work as a drawing card, nor were they the highlight this year. Local originals drew the followings and laurels: Orquesta GarDel is reaching hurricane strength. With vocalist Nelson Delgado and a revolving cast of some of the Triangle's freshest and finest musicians, it may well be the salsa band to be reckoned with.
And you wouldn't have known from Rey Norteño's set that the band hadn't slept in 36 hours. (Rey Norteño drove all night Friday to get back from Savannah, where they opened for Mexican megastars Conjunto Primavera.) The band of local norteño kings sang hits from its 2006 album, Raleigh, as well as some classics by Los Invasores de Nuevo Leon and Ramon Ayala. And this year's most underappreciated gem was Braco, the Latin fusion project of Winston-Salem bassist/pianist Cesar Oviedo (who also leads West End Mambo). The Santana-styled quintet with electric guitar and rock drums is a refreshing change of pace in the musical landscape. Still, things felt off this year: Perhaps La Fiesta should relocate to a cheaper venue, focus only on North Carolina acts or leverage some of that corporate sponsorship to bring a world-class band to the state's longest-running Latino festival.