Back on the afternoon of April 8th of this year, one of Grand Rapids’ crowned jewels and future punk-rock superstar, Alexis, celebrated her twelfth birthday. Have you listened to The Eradicator’s radio drama, War On The Courts? Well, you have Alexis to at least partially thank for that because she asked The Eradicator to play her birthday party and that’s where War On The Courts got recorded live. However, that wasn’t the only live album recorded at that fateful, celebratory show. No, the other was LIVE by Pancho Villa’s Skull, a somewhat more traditional live record, but also akin to catching a little bit of lightning in a bottle from a special day. Now all who were there get to relive it over and over. Thanks Don Carlisle, sound wizard!
On LIVE, Pontiac, MI self-proclaimed mariachi-punk duo, Pancho Villa’s Skull showcases their unique sound, fun personalities, one of a kind live show, and offer a perfect starting point for anyone interested in their music. PVS consists of brothers Tino and Rolando Ybarra. Tino wields an acoustic guitar and sings lead while Rolando sits atop a box cajon and sings backup. Being of proud Mexican descent, the Ybarras’ lyrics are written in Spanglish, leaning toward the Spanish end of the spectrum. Those lyrics are centered largely on anarchist politics. In a lot of ways the band reminds me of very early folk-punk-era Against Me! but in Spanish. It’s a tried-and-true punk format, but they make it sound super fresh.
Pancho Villa’s Skull is notorious for fighting to be recognized as a punk band and they waste no time doing so on the LIVE record by beginning with a cover of Alkaline Trio’s ballad, “Every Thug Needs A Lady.” This is one of Alexis’s all-time favorite songs, thus it was dedicated to her. Kim has raised her well. One time Tino told me he could pretty much play all of Alk3’s entire catalog and I believe him. It was a wise choice for an opening track not just for its sentimentality but also to showcase Tino’s impressive vocal range and vibrato.
One of my favorite parts about this album is that after the “Every Thug…” cover, it features three more previously unrecorded tracks. On “Contradicciones,” the band introduces themselves to roaring applause and immediately launches into this quietly haunting riff. By the end, the words are shouted with raw power. That duality in tone is what defines the Pancho Villa’s Skull. The second previously unreleased song, “El Canalla,” comes after the crowd requests another angry song. It’s dedicated to, in Tino’s words “the second worst president ever,” the first of course being Yolanda Saldívar, president of Selena Quintanilla’s official fan club and infamous for her 1995 murder. You can probably guess who the first is when you realize that “canalla” roughly translates to “bastard” or “scoundrel” and Tino croons, “you’ve been conned, he played you all along.”
Speaking of Selena, Pancho Villa’s Skull always pays tribute to the late-singer’s smash-hit “Como La Flor” and I’m glad to finally have it available to jam whenever I please. On the call-and-response vocal harmonies, the lyrics lament a lost love, comparing it to a withered flower. Despite being mournful thematically, the instrumentation is upbeat and gets people dancing.
Tracks 6, 7, and 8 are all from their seminal release, The Mariachi Punk EP. The first being my overall favorite song of theirs, “Sangre Immigrante,” which offers probably the best sing-along of their catalog thus far. “I don’t know how you got here and / I don’t really care. / ‘Cause we’re all Global Citizens / We all breathe the same air!” illustrates what they’re all about and Lando’s drumming and shaking is on point. You can feel the energy pouring out at the beginning of “Guerita,” a love song dedicated to Tino’s wife, Danielle, who he proclaims keeps his heart beating. They catch their breath while jesting about cutting off anyone’s hands who dares take pizza from the birthday girl. This was a pizza party, after all.
As if PVS’s punk credibility was ever in question, they’re about to quench the doubters. The last two songs are protest songs and go out in solidarity to Grand Rapids-based Latin ska/punk/rock band Epcya. “Injusticia” is an anthem about taking our country back from racist, xenophobic politicians and government agencies. And finally, “A Las Calles” is a call out to fake allies that talk tough but go silent as soon as things get real. It’s about exposing liars and standing up to the continued injustices perpetrated by corrupt media and killer cops. At the end, there’s a break where Lando usually gives a call to action in a short speech before finishing with a chant of “miente! (liar!).” These are by far the most powerful songs and it’s appropriate that they would close with them.
LIVE by Pancho Villa’s Skull is a thought-provoking album and performance by one of the most politically-progressive bands going right now. That’s saying a lot because I honestly hate live records. But you should listen to it. It is a perfect summarization of what they’ve done so far and marks a new beginning for them. Color me curious what’s in store for them and their new home, upstart label Put Out Your Own Records. Big things, I have no doubt.