When you first see the members of Chicano Batman in their ruffled tuxedo shirts and 1980s haircuts, it’s tough to know what to make of the Los Angeles quartet — and the name doesn’t make them easier to gauge.
As the band warmed the stage for gypsy rockers Gogol Bordello on Friday at the 9:30 Club, it started its set with what sounded like a spooky vaudevillian organ. The first song floated into a hazy instrumental break, discordant and slightly jarring, that sparked a couple of perplexed glances from the crowd. Was that static intentional or a glitch?
A little bit of both, it turned out.
“We’re having some technical issues, but we’re just gonna roll with it,” frontman Bardo Martinez admitted, flashing the audience his Cheshire Cat grin.
And roll with it they did. Rough start aside, the band pulled the audience deeper and deeper into the soaring riffs of its trippy, psychedelic arrangements. Those moaning guitars and droning keyboards coalesce into Chicano Batman’s signature sound, a retro aesthetic that won them a place at Coachella and on tours with Jack White and the Alabama Shakes this year.
In some ways, the inscrutability of the name “Chicano Batman” is completely appropriate. The band’s style is hard to pin down. Their music snakes into about five different directions per song, and their eclectic nods to Brazilian tropicalia, 1960s rock, cumbia, jazz and funk are like a grab bag of genres bursting at the seams.
The band members, whose families hail from different parts of Latin America, have been playing together since 2008. It’s no surprise that a parade of multicultural rhythms filled their childhood homes. They’ve said in interviews that there was some Carlos Santana, some Cream, some pop-rock ballads from Los Angeles Negros. Chicano Batman’s namesake debut, as well as its most recent album, “Cycles of Existential Rhyme,” draws from all of these influences and pick up where their parents’ generation left off.
Onstage, these guys are as weird and idiosyncratic as their songs (in a good way). Martinez is a tangle of hair and energy as he alternates between flopping over his keyboard and bending over his guitar. The band members are rock stars when it comes to jamming out on groovier songs, but they keep it cool and relaxed for tracks such as the mopey, cantina-style “Itotiani.”
At one point, Martinez took a step back and gave the mic to bassist Eduardo Arenas, who provided lead vocals on “La Manzanita.” The song is everything good about cumbia: bouncy, buoyant and a little rickety.
Add the magical touch of Chicano Batman’s whining guitars, and it elicits the feeling you get when you spin around on the dance floor until the figures around you blur. With a sound like that, it could very well be that these four unassuming heroes can save the world from the monotony of mainstream Latin pop.
Lopez is a freelance writer.