Ponder for a moment what might have happened had Sergio Mendoza's band performed a Steely Dan set last December at The Great Cover-Up. Or Earth, Wind and Fire.
Those were the contenders before the band settled on the King of Mambo, Perez Prado. The rest is racing into history.
The Prado choice led to an opening slot for Calexico at the Rialto Theatre just two weeks later (and the next night before a crowd of more than 2,000 in Phoenix). Late last month, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta opened three shows for Calexico in San Francisco, including one at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. In June, the Orkesta headlined their own show at the Rialto (as part of what's becoming a regular series of shows at the venue), winning fans among the members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies who attended as part of their annual convention in Tucson. (See "Arizonan Bandstand," June 25.)
Fans who gather for The Great Cover-Up have learned to expect great things from Mendoza's sets, ever since his band Seven to Blue made their Cover-Up debut as Paul McCartney and Wings. Their second year, though, they really hit their stride as Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
"That was my favorite," Mendoza says, "because we dressed up and everything, and we had a string section. We take it very seriously. Every year we do it, we go all out. We take 20 minutes to set up."
When the time came to perform Perez Prado classics, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta filled the Club Congress stage with monogrammed bandstands and dancing girls, plus keyboards, drums, assorted percussion and a horn section. Calexico's Joey Burns was in the audience as the Orkesta spectacularly closed out the evening, and afterward, he invited the Orkesta to be an opening act.
Calexico had wanted to find a Latin-based opening act, and Burns already had visited the Perez Prado rehearsals at Mendoza's invitation; he went to the Cover-Up mostly to check out the finished product. Mendoza's talent and work ethic were a known quantity; he has been touring with Calexico since 2007, when the band's regular keyboard player, Nick Luca, was stricken with diabetes.
Mendoza knew next to nothing about Calexico when Burns first approached him to sit in for Luca. All he knew was that they blended rock and mariachi—a concoction Mendoza had hoped to invent.
"The first time I played in Tucson with my own band, Seven to Blue (Plush in 2002), I was thinking it would be so cool to play with mariachi and a rock group together," Mendoza says. "So we played 'El Cascabel' (a traditional Mexican song that's a fixture in Calexico sets). At the end of the show, people were like, 'Oh, the music's kind of cool, but it sounds like Calexico.' So I went, 'Who is Calexico?' I never did it again. We just kept doing our jazz."
Burns called Mendoza the day before Calexico needed a keyboard player to fill in for Luca on a tour date in Utah. "He came over at, like, 10:30 that night, and we heard some records," Mendoza recalls. "He started ... giving me the chords for the songs. So we started playing, and he said, 'Take a solo.' Then he said, 'OK, learn these seven songs, because these are the main ones we play.'"
At that point, Mendoza's considerable work ethic went into high gear.
"I got my headphones ... and stayed up learning 15 or 16 songs. And I wrote out my own charts," he says. "I slept about two hours (and) finished writing the music on the plane. So when I got to sound check, I felt like I had been playing with them for a long time. They didn't have to cue me."
Mendoza hopes to go to Europe with Calexico one day—but he might get there first with his dazzling upstart, the Orkesta.
"After the Phoenix show (with Calexico), a guy from Germany came up and said he had a festival. It would be fun! That tour will be at least two weeks," Mendoza says.
Touring with the Orkesta will be complex and costly. The band includes a minimum of 11 musicians, which limits the number of venues available to them. Festivals are ideal settings, but there's still the matter of logistics—though Mendoza and his crew are up for the challenge.
"That's what this band is—the bigness," he says. "That's why people are digging it. All the guys in the band are really into it. We make enough money just to cover expenses."
To keep costs down, though, a touring Orkesta may have to dispense with the dancers, a move Mendoza seems to be considering anyway. Mambo dancers were a fixture of Perez Prado's shows, and Mendoza liked the idea of "having something visual going on." But the dancers at Orkesta shows don't mambo, and Mendoza says that fan reaction has been mixed. Calexico fans, he says, "like it more without the dancers."
Anyway, with Salvador Duran in the band, who needs more visuals?
Mendoza, himself, has increasingly adopted the model of Perez Prado's personal showmanship, even as the band has added at least 10 original songs to their core Prado covers.
"The first time we played, at the Cover-Up, it was really scary," Mendoza recalls. "I've been in bands where I played keyboards, and even though I might be leading the band and giving the cues and directing it, I (had previously been) on the side of the stage."
His nervousness seems to have passed into history, along with his obscurity. Watching Mendoza direct musical traffic with as much style as energy has become part of the fun of an Orkesta set. He dances and grins as he cues the band's dramatic pauses and sonic explosions.
Prado's influence may be indelible, but Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta breaks new ground with its rock energy and revved-up sound.
Asked to sum up the difference between Prado and the Orkesta, Mendoza responds immediately: "We're louder. Much louder."