They call this music flamenco rock, and Del Castillo is not the only band in Austin that plays it. Perhaps it got started with El Mariachi, Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez's delightful low-budget romp in which a flamenco-playing guitarist smiles and picks his way through a grim border town infested with insane gang violence. Rodriguez's sister Patricia Vonne has mixed flamenco into her Latin-rock style, but Del Castillo goes beyond what others have done: blazing acoustic-guitar runs show up in almost every song, from flat-out rockers to ballads to intense Afro-Caribbean jams. Del Castillo doesn't go deeply into the vocabulary of flamenco, with its swirl of Gypsy, Jewish, and Islamic layers. Instead, flamenco serves as a pathway between rock guitar and Latin roots.
This six-person Austin band is the creation of brothers Rick and Mark del Castillo, who also have a Robert Rodriguez connection: the band provided music for several of his films and also for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2. The brothers have a worthy counterpart in Rick "The Rev" Holeman, a conservatory-trained percussionist with a whole battery of mostly Caribbean instruments. With Afro-Caribbean rhythms playing off the del Castillo brothers' twin guitars and the gritty yet passionate vocals of Alex "El Lobo" Ruiz, things really get cooking on the longer numbers on the band's three albums. Live, the group is supposed to be better still. A grainy YouTube video — shot on someone's phone at a San Antonio restaurant — suggests that's true.
Del Castillo has strong original songwriting chops to go with the compelling musical mixture. The vocalists sing in both Spanish and English, and with the anthemic quality of some of the bigger rock pieces, a little Spanish will take you a long way. These musicians know the value of not being subtle sometimes: they do some big, brash, simple rock songs, and there's an echo of over-the-top Mexican balladry in their slower material (listen to the lovely "Perdóname" — "Forgive Me" — from their current Brotherhood album, with Ruiz's voice floating in passionate long notes over polyrhythms in the two guitars). But for each song that's straightforward there's one that adds something unexpected. They hark back to Santana's Latin blues-rock ("Barrio Blues"); they do zippy dance pieces with odd flavors ("Yiddish March"); they slow things down with unclassifiable instrumentals ("Mexican Lounge Lizard").
In all, after two decades of looking for the band to fill the shoes of Los Lobos, we just might have found it. Del Castillo comes to the Ark on Tuesday, August 8.
[Review published August 2006]