Probably the best and the worst that could possibly happen to a rock concert happened this rainy Saturday night. In the midst of an early Flores de Mayo (complete with floats and throngs of people) on the streets fronting the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and the traffic that’s expected of any payday weekend in the metro, Fiesta ng Musikang Filipino (An OPM Chronicle) was celebrating its second night of, well, what they made us believe would be pure unadulterated Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll. That expectation of course, has its basis in the fact that the Juan dela Cruz Band had topbilling for this concert series of three nights, and that my friends and I were just giddy at the thought of watching Pepe Smith on stage – a rare treat for those of us who came to Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll when he was already considered a legend. But there was nothing rakenrol about ticket prices (which were steep at P1000 pesos for orchestra seats – thankfully ours were free courtesy of 105.9 RJ Underground DJ Mikey Abola), and that would only be the beginning of an evening that celebrated what seemed to be both the death and life of Pinoy rock as we know it.
There was the Radioactive Sago Project to sit through as the first band of the night, which was pretty uneventful, or just maybe expected. While there’s much to be said about the spoken word and/or performance poetry which is this band’s project, and while the band’s sound is undoubtedly unique in its rendering of a fusion of jazz/punk/funk complete with a horn section, watching Lourd de Veyra walk ‘round and ‘round what is a huge stage just seems … wanting. In smaller venues, this act works, maybe because de Veyra’s attitude (which is really all that it is) can translate to the audience; but in this huge one, it barely does – even with those especially made barongs they were wearing. I almost wanted the horn section to start dancing with him on stage front, instead of being a mere backdrop to his hand gestures and twirls. Besides, given the half-screamed half-mumbled lyrics, one can’t help but think that Sago is really about the music the band churns out – which is always absolutely enjoyable. Nothing like a bigger stage to allow the band to take center stage. And then again, when the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra started to play with the band, the horn sections practically cancelled each other out, and one wonders how exactly we were suppose to appreciate the collaboration.
Followed by The Jerks though, with its no-frills, no pretensions tugtugan – really good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll – what is revealed about Sago is not just that it could use a revision in stage blocking, but how the complexity and uniqueness that the band sells isn’t necessarily what’s important. Playing an all-original set of its socially relevant rock ‘n’ roll songs, The Jerks seemed to be making this point in the context of playing second to Sago: there is much to sing about other than cigarettes and bikining itim, wasakan and buhay rakenrol. And what is beyond the tendency towards self-centered rock ‘n’ roll, or music-making, is nation. By the time the MPO began to play the intro to “Sayaw sa Bubog” (an ode to the 1986 EDSA Revolution and its aftermath), the message was clear: it is the medium, too. And it is a choice.
Just like it was a fantastic choice for MPO to have played “Alleluia” by Bamboo for their solo, which was beautiful by itself (even when I half-expected Bamboo to suddenly appear out of nowhere), a tribute both to the artistry of the MPO, as much as it was to contemporary rock ‘n’ roll, as a product of the history that is The Jerks and Juan dela Cruz. It was in this context that Korean-Italian violonist Lucia Micarelli’s two songs after the intermission seemed out of place: neither of the songs was local. Of course Micarelli’s mere presence was striking, in her skimpy black-silver dress, unruly hair, bare feet and violin nonchalantly carried with one hand – rakenrol na rin kung tutuusin – but the choice of songs were neither here nor there given the show’s promise of both OPM (and) rock ‘n’ roll.
Suffice it to say that if anything, this moment of cognitive dissonance did allow for Juan dela Cruz’s opening song of “Laki Sa Layaw” to be even more exciting. There’s nothing like seeing the three legends of Pinoy rock – Joey “Pepe” Smith, Mike Hanopol and Wally Gonzales – on centerstage, dressed in clothes they would’ve worn in the 60s, now with hair (and beard!) turned white by age. Gonzales’ two solos with the MPO actually showed up Micarelli’s (and Sago’s) performance, as his guitar-playing was nowhere close to being swallowed whole by what could be overwhelming orchestra music. Smith of course, was barely audible in some of the songs, though that just might have added some more to his charm: he’s Pepe Smith after all, we can forgive him anything. In truth, he carried that show, and if not for his crazy self onstage, the audience might not have survived what seemed to be the death of good ol’ Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll as we know it: Mike Hanopol’s spiel introducing the audience to God, and calling upon us all to repeat after him in screaming “Praise the Lord!”
The awkward silence that followed Hanopol’s request should’ve been the cue to start on the next song, but really, he just had to scream it again and ask that we respond, to which of course, a minority in the audience just acceded out of pity, maybe? Or to ease their own discomforts. What we needed to praise in fact, was Smith, and how he – in all of his rakenrol self – could get away with making fun of Hanopol. So as the latter was introducing God as that someone who has “created everything, the Earth and the sky, he who loves music”, Smith started pointing to himself in this grand gesture that was difficult to miss; and when he was tasked to introduce Hanopol after the latter had introduced the members of the band, Smith jokingly said, “And now, the man of God…. shalom.” Which almost made up for what Hanopol had just sprung upon an audience expecting nothing more but a night of Pinoy rock.
Almost, because what truly made up for Hanopol’s disconcerting moment of Mike Velarde-hood, was the finale of “Ang Himig Natin”, with the MPO, Micarelli, and Chikoy Pura of The Jerks. Suddenly, Micarelli was anything but out of place, introducing as she did the always revived but never equaled anthem of Pinoy rock. As if on cue, Smith was also surprisingly audible, singing with heart and soul, and more seriousness, than he had through any of the other songs that evening. By the time Pura entered in a Jonas Burgos t-shirt with a revised version of the second verse – Ako’y may kaibigan / Jonas ang kanyang pangalan / handa na ba kayong lahat / upang siya’y tulungan – the audience was going wild. And I was close to tears.
Finally, it all made sense, this evening in the midst of a nation in crisis, over and above rice that’s too expensive, and human rights violations left and right; where outside the CCP, whole barangays found it in themselves to celebrate a festival of beauty and religiosity, pageantry and faith. Because Pepe Smith had sung: Ang himig natin / inyong panalangin / ang himig natin / inyong dinggin / ang himig natin / inyong awitin.
And almost single-handedly, that song brought Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll to life again, insisting as it did, that it matter beyond that stage.