Sunday, June 12, 2005 A.D.
Bleargh was There - Juan dela Cruz: Ang Pagkalas

My ears are still ringing, and I remember suddenly that I still have wads of paper napkin stuck in my ears. I just watched the Juan dela Cruz reunion and the corners of my mouth are still twisted in an attempt to smile. The show was different from the concerts I've grown accustomed to of late. For one thing, the crowd was composed of different age groups, where characters from the hippie age mingled with Makati punk types and families with children were hardly an exception. Despite the volume, a welcome sense of space presided and it was easy for me to weave through the crowd with my old faithful Coolpix in hand. It felt like an outdoor festival.

Enjoying the concert was easy for me. I never kept my rock leanings secret, and Juan dela Cruz, after all, is the greatest Pinoy Rock band from the 70s (the best era in rock, IMO). This was their first major gig in 7 years and I was lucky enough to find VIP tickets to the event. I was doubly 'lucky' that I was able to score a production pass at the venue even if I had to assume the identity of one 'Lucky,' whose name was written on my pass.

Juan dela Cruz is essentially the trio of Joey 'Pepe' Smith, Mike Hanopol and Wally Gonzalez. It can hardly be contested that they are rock legends, each in their own right, and collectively as the only 70s Pinoy Rock band who still manages to stay in Filipino consciousness, thanks to their excellent musicianship and sharp but casually tossed lyrics. The group dynamic is uniquely Filipino, and it's easy to see how they developed a crossover appeal, having personas that run the gamut of genre archetypes. Pepe Smith, lanky and reed thin, personifies the nihilistic rock 'n' roll attitude. He grips the microphone stand with a swagger that's typical of early punk frontmen, channeling Iggy Pop and another Joey who went by the last name 'Ramone.' He dispenses comic spiels with a noticeable chemical slur and a sincere rapport with his fans... the guy has more charisma in his big toe than most bands combined and he's not apologetic about it, on and off the stage. Mike Hanopol, on the other hand, is better known for writing anthems, having been responsible for many 70s hits that are still highway stop videoke staples. As a songwriter, Mike displays a unique connection with Filipino pop culture, transcending the music to become a cultural icon himself. His songs have become imprinted on the Filipino mind, and it's tempting to compare him with one Lito Camo in terms of public appeal, but it has to be noted that his songs have been playing on our minds for more than 20 years and the comparison therefore falls short when considering that bit. Lastly, there is Wally Gonzalez, guitar god exemplar. He's a throwback to the golden age where the riff ruled almighty and solos were centerpieces. Playing his role with a knowing precision, Wally weaves through the songs effortlessly, deftly handling his Stratocaster - rock's AK-47 - to punctuate the soundscape with flurried staccatos and drawn-out sustains without being overbearing. The tricky part about being a Pinoy guitar god is that one hardly gets deified and the veneration that is accorded the likes of Page, Clapton and Beck is thus rarely given. It is only apt, in my opinion, as the greatest respect that Filipinos give is not adoration but fellowship, and with the Filipino as everyman Juan dela Cruz, Wally can be considered the everyman's guitar hero.

The show started a bit late, owing to some logistical problems that resulted from the previous function at the World Trade. Following a brief AV intro detailing the band's legacy, the three took to the stage in black (no less) riding Harleys and immediately opened the show with the brief 'Maskara,' to segue into a rousing 'Kahit Anong Mangyari,' reminding everyone that the band, despite the hiatus, was never really gone after all, much like the Pinoy Rock that they pioneered. It was during that moment that I finally took in the fact that I was actually watching THE Juan dela Cruz band in concert. I've watched Wally play countless times in different gigs all across the metro (sometimes even with Pepe). I've also seen all three of them hang out backstage that night, even getting to chat with each of them a while, but that precise moment of merely seeing them together on stage just blew me away - Wally on the far left stoically strumming his guitar with the steely confidence of a legend, Pepe centerstage, clad head to toe in black leather with his appendages flailing like a maniacal marionette's, guitar dangling precariously from his wiry frame, and Mike to the right, with a bandana replacing his trademark beret, belting out the chorus with that familiar rasp. It just blew me away.

In no small part, the supporting musicians also contibuted to the wonderful concert. The setup was comparable to that of the Allman Brothers, utilizing two active drummers (Wendell Garcia, formerly of Barbie's Cradle, was one), a keyboard player (jazzman Wowee Posadas), a bassist (virtuoso Dondi Ledesma) with the guitar and vocal parts being ably handled by the three core JDC members. The concert also featured several guest performers, starting with Joonnie Centeno (vocalist for Wally's current band) who played harmonica on 'Mamasyal sa Pilipinas,' followed by the lovely pair of Kat Agarrado (Wally Gonzalez Band/Sino Sikat) and Hannah Romawac (Sessionroad), who sang alternate turns on a crowd pleasing 'Divisoria.' Sandwich/Kjwan frontman Marc Abaya then took the stage for a brutal take on 'Palengke,' to be followed several songs later by Lourd de Veyra on 'Nadapa sa Arina' with a delivery similar to his Radioactive Sago Project stylings.

As with most concerts I've attended, each song just bled onto the next one in succession. I seem to develop short term memory loss with these events, and I can firmly attest that it's not pharmaceutically induced... I just easily get excited, that's all. I did save the setlist on my cellphone, so I can still clearly point out the highlights. I particularly enjoyed the rockers 'Sarap ng Buhay,' and 'Kagatan,' as well as the lilting blues rendition of 'Balong Malalim.' The extended jam that was 'Rock 'n' Roll sa Ulan' was memorable thanks to the guitar workouts that permeated the song, followed by the classic 'Beep Beep,' which probably drew the strongest reactions from the crowd. I also found myself enjoying the downtempo boogie of 'No Touch' and the less polished version of the doowop-ish 'Panahon.' Wally also played his stirring signature track 'Wally's Blues,' and Mike later took a solo turn as well with the stomping 'Hanopology.' They capped off the set with, aptly enough, 'Himig Natin,' where they called back all the guest performers (sans Marc Abaya, who had already left by then) to sing the well loved anthem with Pepe (one wardrobe change later). For the encore, the band performed the song 'Ang Pagkalas,' which was purposely composed for the reunion. I was wondering for several moments why there seemed to be something wrong about the song and realized that Pepe wasn't singing his verses at all. It struck me that he probably forgot the lyrics, being a fairly recent piece, but he made up for this little blunder toward the end when he actually came up with lyrics on the spot. That's shock and awe for you... even their mistakes left me amazed.

I can go into further details, although that would delve into the dreaded realm of needless gushing and extreme nitpickery. True, there was a general air of nostalgia, and even a sense of taking part in a timely tribute, but at it's heart, the gig was a rock 'n' roll show, and to be overly critical is one way of missing the point. After all, even when injected with serious musicianship, grandiose production and larger-than-life spectacles, rock 'n' roll is really all about having fun, and we can thank the Juan dela Cruz band not only for reminding us of that, not only for proving that they can still cut it, but most importantly, for showing us how to do it properly, especially when it seems that we sometimes keep forgetting.

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you're very lucky man! long live rock, be it dead or alive.
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thanks for the Who reference sir!
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