When Jonathan Holden of Rhythm and Roots introduced the Carnivaleros, he said, "This gig has been 10 years in the making." And with that, Gary Mackender—the one constant in this good-time accordion-driven band—began to put the latest version through its paces.
Some bands have trouble making it through 10 gigs, much less 10 years, but Mackender, actually a drummer by trade, has come up with a winning formula. By strategically planning his gigs, he's turned the Carnivaleros into one of Tucson's great showcase bands. Adhering to the philosophy of less is more, most shows are an event, and this one was no exception.
Playing the entire first set as a lean four-piece—with Michael P. Nordberg on guitar, Larry Lee Lerma on bass and Marx Loeb on drums—the band warmed up on a combination of funky blues, Cajun/zydeco and Tex-Mex polkas. Within three tunes, however, what began as a sit-down concert quickly gave way to an all-out assault on the dance floor. Mixing in instrumentals, the band effortlessly moved through a playful set of covers, including "Li'l Liza Jane," "Diggy Diggy Lo" and Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell." But it was Mackender's rendition of Nancy McCallion's "Odessa," which harkened back to his days with the Mollys, that changed the tenor of the show, giving it more of a sense of purpose.
In contrast to the first set, the second set was the domain of Mackender's three CDs of mostly original tunes. "Happy Homestead," "Gina Lollobrigida" and the spaghetti-Western-inspired "Hang 'Em High Tango" were all highlights. Described by one fan as "a guitarist's wet dream," the tango showcased the talents of special guest and onetime Carnivalero Mitzi Cowell. Onstage for the entire set, her soaring leads were a perfect counterpoint to Nordberg as they effortlessly traded licks throughout. When she took center stage on "Teen Na Nee Na Nu," one could only wonder why she hasn't yet been inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame. Also sitting in was former Molly Catherine Zavala playing mandolin and singing the exquisite "Alejandro."
Conspicuous by her absence was longtime Carnivalero Hurricane Carla Brownlee. But with a roomful of inspired music, her absence was forgiven.