Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce, featuring Los Texmaniacs, completed their East Coast tour at the Uptown! Knauer Performing Art Center in West Chester, PA on July 13, 2022. Originally built as an armoury, the building originally housed the National Guard’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry and 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which traces its lineage directly to Benjamin Franklin, who formed the unit in 1747 to protect the Colonies in the French and Indian War. Uptown! Entertainment Alliance secured an agreement from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to transform the grand old armoury into a multi-use theatre with two performance venues, including a 327-seat main stage and an 85-seat cabaret stage. As of 2022-23, Uptown! is offering its first ever fully produced theatre season, along with a jazz series, dance performances, comedy performances, and film showings. Uptown! is West Chester’s destination for the performing arts.
Upon walking into the theatre, I was greeted by volunteer ushers who showed me to my seat. They were so friendly and helpful, I got to know their names: Chip Simmons and Eileen Rowan (no relation to Peter). Chip even sent me some pictures after the event.
I had just seen Peter perform at the Grey Fox in Oak Hill, NY a week prior, and I knew that he and the band next played at the Grassroots Finger Lakes Festival in Ithaca, NY. This was the end of a gruelling three-week tour, during a heatwave on the East Coast. You’d think maybe the band would be running on empty. But this was not the case at all. Performing at times solo, sometimes with the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Peter also plays with Los Texmaniacs, a conjunto band created by Max Baca in 1997. In 2010 Los Texmaniacs won a Grammy Award for Tejano Album of The Year with ‘Borders y Bailes’. The featured members of the band are Max Baca on bajo sexto, Josh Baca on accordion, and Noel Hernandez on electric bass. Anyone who is familiar with Peter Rowan’s song catalogue, ‘Panama Red’, ‘Land of the Navajo’, ‘Midnight Moonlight’, and ‘Walls of Time’, knows that there’s a hint of Tex-Mex music throughout his largely bluegrass-oriented career. But when Peter plays with Los Texmaniacs everything comes out differently. According to Peter, when he plays with Los Texmaniacs, the result is a unique combination of bluegrass, conjunto, and rock-n-roll.
The band performed ‘Break My Heart Again’ from Peter’s 1978 ‘Peter Rowan‘ solo album. Written when Peter was living in Texas and recorded with Flaco Jiménez, ‘Break My Heart Again’ is very firmly rooted in Tex-Mex music. A romantic song, Josh Baca delivers the female voice in the call and response with Peter, echoing mi corosone in a high-pitched register. Meanwhile, Josh’s face is totally stoic. It’s entertaining to watch this burly six-foot-two man hit those high notes with complete ease.
Changing channels, the group then broke into ‘I’m Gonna Love You Like There’s No Tomorrow’, a very rocking and rolling tune. Some people got up and danced to the song, while Josh traded accordion solos with Max’s bajo sexto, whipping up the band’s frenzy level. The excitement factor was lifted through the roof by a performance of the ‘Free Mexican Airforce’, another song that could sit side by side on any Tex-Mex album, but with a Peter Rowan gleam to it. After performing ‘Oh Liberty’, which will appear on an album expected to come out in 2023, featuring Peter Rowan with Los Texmaniacs, Peter then asked for the stage lighting to dim a bit. “For this song, we need light like the dawn of time.”
When the lights were adjusted, providing the purple blue swirl of a young planet Earth, the group played ‘Land of the Navajo‘. But because Peter was playing with Los Texmaniacs, the song came out with a different tempo and a different feel overall from the original. This is why we love Peter Rowan. Don’t expect the same thing twice. The entire audience sang the next song, ‘Midnight Moonlight’. Like the other songs before it, ‘Midnight Moonlight’ was performed with a tilt, which was welcomed by all.
One of the climaxes of the night was ‘Midnight on the Stormy Deep‘. Before playing, Peter asked for the lights to be dimmed again. “It’s bright up here. It’s always noon on stage. Can we get light like at the dawn of time again? You know, purple, bluish color. Predawn.” Originally a Bill Monroe song, the tune was performed sweetly and softly. Showing off his formidable guitar skills, Peter took turns trading bluesy solos with Max and Josh Baca. The song emerged from the stage’s purplish-blue haze, taking me on a journey through time. I imagined dinosaurs roaming the Earth. Then I saw the time before the dinosaurs when the Earth was covered in a primordial soup. The song kept taking me back further, until there was no time. Just a breezy electric wind blowing through the cosmos. Turning back to a more Tex-Mex rock-n-roll sound, the band played a rollicking version of ‘South of New Orleans’, featuring the refrain, “We make love to the Rumba beat.” This song made people get out of their seats and dance in the aisles again.
Roughly a two-hour show, there was no indication that this was the last performance on the tour. When I went down to the musicians’ area after the show to talk to Peter, he said, “We’re exhausted.” I said that no one in that audience would have thought that. The players were on fire and the people listening were charged. Having just turned 80, Peter Rowan must have superhuman powers. All-in-all, another great Peter Rowan show on the record for time immemorial.
Mike Fiorito is an author and freelance writer. His newest book, Mescalito Riding His White Horse, inspired by the music of Peter Rowan, is currently available for pre-order.
For more info, please go to https://mikefiorito.com/