It’s almost 11 p.m. on Friday night at Slim’s in San Francisco, where over 400 fans have gathered to experience the band they’ve been waiting for. And when the band finally starts their set, the electric guitar, bass, drums and horns release a tidal wave of sound that washes back toward the stage with the surge of a young and energetic crowd that’s now jumping up and down uncontrollably.
There’s a synergy between the audience and the band, and it’s creating an ever-rising energy level. The audience is overjoyed and so is La Plebe – one of the Bay Area’s most exciting independent bands – known for it’s own bilingual brand of thrash-worthy punk rock with horns.
For the San Francisco-based band, La Plebe, which means “the people” in Spanish, this night on Nov. 3 was a special occasion – their fifth and most ambitious album “Brazo en Brazo” was being released the following week on CD and for the first time on vinyl.
The quintet consists of founding member bassist/singer Lupe Bravo, drummer Mark T. Harris, guitarist Adam “Pags” Paganini, and the brass section made up of Alberto Cuéllar on trumpet and Antonio “Tron” Cuéllar on trombone.
The band members grew up listening to traditional Latino music in their households where the horn instruments play a key role. La Plebe puts this influence to use by having the horn section take on the role that the lead guitarist plays in other punk rock bands. While guitarist Pags lays down the rhythm, it’s the Cuéllar brothers’ horns that carry the melodies.
It’s this distinctive sound that defines La Plebe but it also, sometimes, gets their music mislabeled as punk-ska, which has a similar instrument arrangement but a different sound and rhythm. They admit there is an influence and they might use ska rhythm, or “skank”, but they don’t think it’s significant enough to warrant the ska label.
“Don’t get us wrong, we want to make it very clear. We love ska music – a lot – but that’s just not what we play,” Alberto says. “Because we play with horns, people can get confused. We don’t want people to come thinking we are going to play ska and then we don’t – and they are disappointed. It happened, and we don’t want that.”
No one, however, appeared disappointed at the album release at Slim’s. La Plebe has a strong community relationship with their fans. It’s practically a La Plebe trademark for fans to get on stage and start singing with the band at every show. While the group wants to continue that connection with the fans, sometimes an over-excited fan can be challenging, and they have stories of close calls.
“Yeah, I had a fan start singing a song with me but he forgot the words and said, ‘You sing it!’ and shoved the mic in my teeth,” recalls Lupe, smiling with all his teeth still noticeably intact.
But if the sense of community at a La Plebe show is strong, it’s only because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“We are an extremely tight band,” Pags says. “For us, if one of us is sick or can’t make it, we just don’t play. We can’t imagine playing without one another.”
Since La Plebe formed in 2001, Pags joined in 2004 after one of the band’s founding members had left, but that has been the only change in the band’s line-up.
To La Plebe, it’s the individuals that make and complete the group, which can be a rarity in many of today’s independent bands where personnel changes are often casual and frequent.
“It can be kind of strange when we get to know another band that we like and hang out with, and then we will see them later down the road and you notice right away that someone is missing,” Alberto says. “It’s like, ‘What happened?’ It changes the chemistry and sometimes it’s a little sad.”
The solidarity and synergy doesn’t just end there but extends into their songwriting as well – all the songs are written collectively and credited to La Plebe.
“I or someone else will bring in an idea,” Lupe says, “but a song doesn’t get written until we all get together, and then those individual ideas will change into something else.”
The audience’s reaction at Slim’s to new tracks appears to be a success, however, La Plebe knows it’s always a balancing act when introducing new material, so they divide their set equally between fan favorites and songs from their new CD.
Though the members originally come from areas like Salinas, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, their roots as a band run deep in the Mission District.
“We’ve all lived here at one time or another and we all spend a lot of time here,” said Alberto, who now lives in the Mission District.
Indeed, they have made their mark in the Mission District from playing guerilla-style concerts in Clarion Alley and the BART station at 24th and Mission – until the police would show up – to playing countless gigs at Balazo and El Rio. But this is the 21st Century, after all; the world has gone global and so has the tour-heavy La Plebe.
La Plebe has gone on multiple tours to countries in Latin America and Europe. On their first trip to the UK in 2008, the group was playing with none other than Mick Jones from the Clash, who joined them on stage for their version of “The Guns of Brixton.”
Their tours have also included four trips to the Balkans, where they have fostered a fan base despite the fact that little English, and practically no Spanish, is spoken there.
Their experiences in the Balkans, where wounds from civil wars and ethnic cleansing are still very raw, have had a profound effect on the band and in how they view the world.
“Intense! That’s the best word to sum it up. Intense,” Pags says. “Hanging out with people who have just been through a war is very humbling.”
Despite the fans not understanding Spanish, many of them, Lupe says, translate the lyrics themselves, and they identify with the problems that immigrants face in U.S. and other places in Latin America. The political situation there, the band admits, is complicated.
In the tradition of bands like The Clash from the UK and Tijuana No! from Mexico, La Plebe is a band that stands by their principles. They don’t shy away from a social justice point of view in their lyrics. At the same time, they don’t want to tell people what to do or think.
“We try not to preach. We just try to tell facts,” says Pags, whose own parents fled from Argentina during its “Dirty War.” “We want to get rid of ignorance to have people be more unified. We want to get people pumped and have a great f-cking time.”
Indeed, that sentiment might best describe their newest album in three years. “Brazo en Brazo” was produced by Billy Gould of Faith No More and released on his imprint, Koolarrow Records. It’s a definitive and cohesive representation of everything the band stands for.
Many of the songs are unapologetically political and carry cries for social justice whether for families separated by immigration polices (“Soledad”), the plight of farm workers (“Campesino”) or the history of Latin America (“Venas Abiertas”). But again, nothing stops La Plebe from promoting hope and celebrating life just like in their opening track, “Siempre Unidos”, a mariachi-infused punk rock anthem. The music is as hard as it should be but also heavily melodic and memorable.
In these days of downloadable music, one of the forgotten pleasures of owning a physical album is the enjoyment of the artwork, which La Plebe also delivers. Artist Josué Rojas, from the Mission District, provides beautiful mural-style cover art, while the inside flap contains period photographs collected by the band.
There is no doubt that this new recording will more than satisfy La Plebe’s long time fans and bring new ones as well. Their live shows are events not to be missed but listening to “Brazo en Brazo” is as great a time as one can have without being there.