Cordovas On Earth
by Jeff Vincent
Men Making Music To Move The Spirit
Famished and under the influence of various potions, my energy-less situation was deflated further by a soul-crushing depression. So then why on Earth was I smiling and dancing merrily like some blissed-out mad fool of the bacchanal this wintry Wednesday night at Saint Rocke? Cordovas on Earth, that’s why.
For some time now I’ve been tuned in to the talents of Joe Firstman, more years than will fit on one hand. While he resides part of the year in Todos Santos, Mexico, and his band the Cordovas have a home base in a big barn a few miles outside of Nashville, Tennessee, for about the last decade or so he’s also become a South Bay fixture. In fact, while their first album was largely written in Nashville, the band was living here in El Porto at what we affectionately refer to as The Whiskey House during the recording sessions.
In the last couple of years, I’d not been in the best touch while much has been happening, including extensive touring throughout Europe and USA, accolades from Rolling Stone, and an international record deal with ATO (King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket), who released their newest LP from 2018 That Santa Fe Channel.
With all in flux, I still personally wasn’t too sure what Firstman had been up to musically prior to the Cordovas show at Saint Rocke a couple Wednesdays ago. In the past, I’ve seen the man squeeze blood from the body of his guitar while presumably lost in trance during a blistering and seemingly endless cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer.” I’ve beheld a solitary character behind the keys, summoning ghosts and angels from the piano with song. I watched a momentary break away from his usual brand of Americana roots music for a stab at landing a contemporary pop chart hit.
All good, always impressive. But back to this night at Saint Rocke…Whoa. Err. Umm. Hmm. Wow. I was blown away, never bored, totally rapt, and filled with a compulsion to write about music for the first time in years.
What I witnessed at that Saint Rocke show was a joyful exercise in perfection and fusion. Not fusion like this or that smashed together with a dash of this or that, but a truly astonishing blend of musical backgrounds and directions seamlessly flowing together.
Flooring vocal harmonies were just as exciting as the weaving dual guitar jams. Jams were free, yet pointed, loose but controlled, never doodling senselessly for show, often driving, dripping, and ethereal all at once, always returning the audience back to the band here on earth, in a room, upon a stage. A fleeting dose of something like the main riff from Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen” might open a tune for half a heart’s flutter before shifting gear into full country rock after a half nod to some surf twang before realizing you’d been ushered into a pounding progressive groove ultimately carving its way back to a punctuated extreme pause upon the precipice of more Eagle-esque harmonizing. Like the deep breath taken by toilsome clouds before exhaling soft rolling thunder with a soundless flashing sigh.
A particularly favorite moment of the magic at hand for me was when Firstman set up one of the encores and then left the stage…He disappeared for a short spell and resurfaced as a member of the audience while the band soared through some high-energy jamming reminiscent of German Krautrock genre. Continually bedazzled by the performance, I walked over to him and said, “Seriously? Now I’m hearing German Krautrock? Where the heck is this coming from?”
With a serious smile, he replied, “I don’t know, we’ve never done this before.”
During this moment it occurred to me that this frontman wasn’t working the crowd from the audience as a gimmick; he was a fan. He was a fan of the music his band was playing, enjoying it as much as I was. Beautiful.
Ever and undoubtedly the frontman, to say that Joe Firstman is the Cordovas would be like saying that the sun is our solar system. To be sure, the solar system would be naught without the sun, but Earth, Saturn, Jupiter and all the rest of those ancient gods are so very important on their individual own, yet always swirling rhythmically in sway about their nucleic sun. Firstman commands this very type of gravity, and the fellas around him present integral elements for what appears to be a perfectly balanced formula.
Firstman controls a room, on or off stage, singing or playing, playing or watching, he attracts or directs attention. But give innocent looking bad boy lead guitarist Lucca Soria a mic and he’ll validate your hunch that he can also sing in addition to feverishly playing your face off. Let Toby Weaver on second guitar (who also happens to play a heavenly fiddle) lead sing a tune, and you might just want him to front the rest of the night. Throw in a drummer and the infectious charm of Sevans Henderson on keys, and you’ve got the core of Cordovas.
“The idea was always developing and I needed the right guys,” Fristman told me. “Lucca was a blessing, Toby is a genius, Sevans is a thoroughbred.”
Bewildered and eager to be brought up to speed, I asked Firstman if what I’d experienced live was representative of the sound found on the That Santa Fe Channel LP.
“Although we play many of the songs from Santa Fe true to form in the live show, it’s far more energetic than the album would lead one to think,” he said. “And there isn’t Toby’s second guitar weaving in and out of everything on the album, the counter guitar, in that case, was the brilliant pedal steel of Smith Curry. But we look forward to the next record where we will have both Lucca and Toby.”
So do I.
Cordovas will be playing Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneer Town, CA on Thursday, Dec. 20 before heading back to Mexico for the Jan. 10-20 Hotel California Presents Serie de Conciertos Trópico de Cáncer music festival which Firstman has been developing and procuring for the past 10 years. A jaunt to Europe in spring 2019 will follow. That Santa Fe Channel is available on vinyl at the ATO Records website, and the Cordovas can be listened to on Spotify, Bandcamp, and DirtyHippieRadio.