A Rock n Roll Vacation in Spain Turned Crazy Road Trip Adventure
I wasn’t planning on going to mainland Spain this year, as I had already done a few trips and was saving free days and money for the upcoming We’re Loud Fest 2 in Greece. But I had gotten so sick of this project at my work that we were stuck with for the whole summer. I had to get away. Well, a little fix of Spain and spending some time with my hermano, Leandro, in my second home of Bunyol, always does the trick.
I landed in Valencia the evening of Friday August 11. Leandro was there to pick me up and we were off some 40 kilometres from the city to the beautiful little town of Bunyol. Famous for its Tomatina Party, it’s a typical scenic, little Spanish little with an impressive old Moorish Castillo as its centerpiece. It was my fourth time there so when Lean and I hit the local hang out, the aptly named ‘Bar Las Vegas’ it was a warm reunion with all the friends I made over the years. After a few beers and tequilas, we called it a night and went back to Lean’s ‘cave,’ as he likes to call his place, because in the morning we we’re off to Cuenca Profunda.
Saturday August 13:
The province of Cuenca is situated deep in the Spanish heartland in Castilla-La Mancha. Cuenca Profunda meaning Deep Cuenca. It’s the land of Cervantes and Don Quixote, vineyards, olive trees and endless shades of red and orange. The reason we were off deep into the mountains of La Mancha was that Leandro was performing with Valencia’s new garage rock sensation The Ukelele Zombies. Our zombie friends were invited back to headline the local festival Marca Propia. The road crew included their singing drummer and a bit of a ‘child’ prodigy Palmero (or is it Palermo), guitarist Luis, Palmero’s girlfriend, Nena, and Arturo, Leandro’s cousin, and another Bunyol legend. As I found out when we got there, we weren’t going to the town of Cuenca, but to a nearby village called Ribatejada.
So picture this – yet another pretty little Spanish town high up in the mountains. On its main square they set up a huge stage with a moronically loud PA system that was heard all around the neighboring Sierras.
But first things first, it was time to indulge in some local gastronomic specialties. Apart from the more common orejas (crunchy pigs ears), morcilla (blood sausage) and callos (tripe stew), we tasted the zarajos de Cuenca (fried sheep’s intestines rolled on a vine branch and served with lemon). It was bizarre foods central! I was hooked on zarajos right away! They taste funky and kind of stale, in a good way, and are super crunchy on the outside and unbelievably moist in the middle. But wait a minute… this is a music mag, right?
Anyway, after stuffing ourselves on delicious offal we went to leave our stuff at the nearby Casa rural, aka village cottage, which the good people of the festival provided for us. Located about a two minutes’ walk from the main square, this comfy hunting style lodge had a huge living room, and as the piece de resistance a little stuffed wild boar. We felt right at home. Soon the missing bass playing zombie, Daniel, joined us and we went back to check out the other bands at the festival.
Most of the bands were not my cup of tea. A lot of cheesy ska/punk/metal combos with some misplaced hip-hop thrown in there for bad measure. The Birra’s Terror from Madrid were okay after a gazillion beers and a few liters of calimocho (red wine, coke and shitloads of ice). Party punk rock in the Toy Dolls mode and I guess Rat-Zinger were fun for a few songs with their brand of punk metal – think Motorhead and Exploited.
But most of the fun was just getting hammered and checking out the crowd. I must remind you, this is Cuenca Profunda, where old men still walk with ancient shepherd’s sticks and have beards growing out of their ears, and the old hunched backed ladies wobble up and down stone pathways with John Wayne-like swagger. On the other hand, the town square was full of punks, metal heads, alternative kids and all other kind of friendly scum. You know it’s a great party when you see a midget girl guzzling a huge pint of beer and making out with a dude twice her size.
As the Zombies were on last at six in the morning, we went back to the villa for some more drinks and to let the guys change into their stage clothes. As Leandro said after he saw the crowd “Marko, for what I put on my beatle boots? Fucking Cuenca!” All the while Arturo was struggling to get the TV to work, so me and him could catch a glimpse of the Olympics in Rio. Experienced dude that he is, after a few hours of plugging and unplugging of cables, twiddling the knobs and good old-fashioned stomping of the screen, he got the fucker to work! So after catching a few finals we were back at the town square for the eagerly anticipated gig by our favorite Zombies. And man was it worth it.
They jolted the zombie like, shit-faced crowd back into life! The screaming drummer, Palmero, is a force of nature, and the quiet, diminutive guitar player Luis is a demented love child of Chuck Berry and Wilco Johnson. Add to that mix the whaling electric harmonica provided by Leandro and you have a winning combo. They blasted their primitive and groovy garage rock for close to an hour and the madness ended with Palmero jumping off the stage, floor tom in hand, to orchestrate a frenzied tribal rock ‘n roll dance in the middle of the crowd. Wow. Mental note… Need to get those guys to Amsterdam.
After the gig I stumbled back to the villa for a bit of shuteye, because our road trip in Cuenca Profunda was far from over.
Sunday August 14:
Since August 15 is a national holy-day in Spain, Leandro, Arturo and I decided to stay in the Cuenca province for the while weekend. We bid farewell to Nena and the Zombies and hit the road towards the town of Buendia. The reason that we were going there was that we wanted to check out the ‘Ruta de las Caras’ (Trail of the Faces). Crazy, surreal rock carvings in a rugged natural landscape – my kind of thing.
On the way to Buendia we passed a very inviting artificial lake and made plans to come back there for a swim after we secured a sleeping place for the night. If everything was booked we’d camp next to the lake. And just as expected the first hotel Lean had in mind was fully booked, so they sent us to another one.
The other place looked great, nice terrace, a restaurant and a great view of the surrounding mountains, so we were really hoping they’d have a room. Well they had no singles or doubles anymore, just a suite. We gulped in unison and asked for the price. It was 100 euros a night. Lean asked, “You mean 100 a person?” No, it was 100 for the night to split between the three of us. Hell yeah, we were in! Sleeping in a suite was a first for all three of us.
The place was huge. A massive salon with two huge sofas, a big screen TV and a million character features that made it look like a local museum. Then there was the bedroom, which was almost as big, with three beds, another massive TV and a big ass bathroom. Just what us three sinners needed to detox from the night before.
After relaxing a bit Lean I drove to the beach while Arturo maintained his hard earned reputation and hit the hotel bar straight away. For dinner we had more zarajos, followed by a half a leg of mutton and washed down with excellent local Cuenca wine. We hit the sack early as to be fresh for our psychedelic hike the next morning.
Monday August 15th:
Fairly rested we bid farewell to our suite and drove about 14 kilometres to the start of the Ruta. The pictures we saw online and in the brochures in the hotel were impressive, but up close it was amazing. Ranging from just a few centimetres to more than three metres tall, these carvings and sculptures are a surrealist trip. A huge skull, Dali-esque distorted faces, Buddha-like figures carved on big boulders, surrounded by desert like terrain with just a pine tree here and there.
Another cool feature were the numerous small illegal carvings done by visitors over the last 25 years. That’s my kind of art exhibition. We almost had the whole place to ourselves and proceeded to climb all over the massive stone artworks and take some properly wild pictures.
After a few hours rambling in the rocks it was time to leave Cuenca and head back to Bunyol, but not before another massive dose of zarajos and morro de cerdo rebozado (fried pig snout). We couldn’t eat all of it so they packed the leftovers for us to take back home.
Tuesday August 16 – Friday August 19:
I spent the rest of the week relaxing, reading, hiking and scrambling in the mountains surrounding Bunyol. I had a surreal experience when I went to a local paraje natural de la Jarra – a nice little trail along the river that runs through the town. As I made my way back from the rocky ravine I heard a horse galloping and in the background a fittingly heroic musical score.
It just so happened that the guy from the nearby villa was training his horse next to the river while the guys from the house on the other side were watching a classic western and had the soundtrack music blasting through the whole canyon.
Another highlight was going to the rehearsal of Dr. Dabuten, Leandro and Arturo’s Dr. Feelgood cover band. The band features Leandro as the singer, rhythm guitarist and drummer, Arturo on bass and Domingo on lead guitar. Domingo also provides the Spanish translation of the Feelgood classics. Like the Feelgoods they are super tight and energetic. They just did their first show in Valencia and it was a big success.
Friday August 19:
It was time to get back on the road and in on the action. Lean got a tip about a gig in one of the premier rock venues in Valencia, Magazine Club. At the club we met with Lean’s good friend and band mate, the friendly giant, Julian Gigante. Julian was doing the sound for the bands, but as the American headliners who were bringing the backline were running late, he joined us for a dinner in a Mexican restaurant next door.
Many tacos and beers later, more friendly faces started showing up, including yet another band mate of Leandro’s, Gustavo, and the ever-present local legend, Bored. Only in Spain do you get a nickname from an obscure Aussie punk band. I met Bored and the rest of the bunch last year in Valencia at a Radio Birdman concert. Even though his English is pretty rudimentary and my Spanish even worse, we had a great time.
The bands on the bill were Cachemira from Barcelona and Sacri Monti from California. Stoner, psych, heavy blues-o-rama. Long hair, bell bottoms, wha wha pedals… the works. Although it’s not really my cup of tea, both bands had top-notch musicians and got me spacy and hazy for a few songs a-piece.
The rest of the night was spent with Bored and the bunch at the bar blaring out songs by ANTiSEEN, GG Allin, and the like. Or as Bored put it – “Real poonk rock!” So with reverb drenched ears we glided back to Bunyol.
Saturday August 20 and on deep into Sunday August 21:
This was my last full day in Spain. We heard about a festival in Javea from Julian, where he was playing with the cult Aussie guitar-slinger, Johnny Casino. The name of the fest was Pin Up Festival. It featured a bunch of cool bands from different rock ‘n roll genres. I hesitated for about two seconds about whether it was a good idea to go to an all-night party, since I was flying at 4pm on Sunday, but luckily enthusiasm once again prevailed over reason and we were back on the road.
First it was off to Valencia to pick up Paloma and Alvaro, the couple behind the legendary Funtastic Dracula Festival. Alvaro was booked as one of the DJ’s for the night. With the road crew intact it was time to go south about an hour and a half towards Alicante.
Slowly the flat rice fields turned into mountains around Cullera and then past Denia and into the winding, circular road up into the beautiful Parque Natural Montgo. This is a green oasis in the mostly barren central part of Spain. The elephant-like mountain of Montgo dominates the landscape. At 753 meters it’s not massively high, but it’s very prominent due to its close proximity to the sea and its steep, craggy cliffs. It’s a hiker and rock-climbers paradise… but that will be part of another trip.
Right in the middle of this natural paradise was the club hosting the festival Discoteca Hacienda. Just about the coolest venue I’ve been to in my life. It’s an outdoor-indoor kind of place with two tropical style bars, and a third indoor bar that looks like the most stylish, classic pub you can imagine. There’s a bunch of little separate lounges, a friggin tree growing in the middle of the outdoor part, and a very cool stage.
What more do you effin want? Well, how about some cool bands and a wild appreciative crowd. We had it all. Just as diverse as the bands the crowd was a mix of garageros, punk rockers, rockabillies and all different kinds of cool subhumans.
The party started with the blues punk trio Macumba Brothers. Guitar, harmonica, drums and vocals buried in reverb. They had the crowd going wild, but I thought it was a bit annoying that the drummer only used two massive floor toms a one cymbal. I know it’s all supposed to be primitive and lo-fi, but all the songs sounded like a bunch of extended intros to me.
After their show, Alvaro took to the decks and played some of the coolest, obscure R&B singles ever recorded. The crowd was grooving and the anticipation was growing, because the Johnny Casino Trio were up next. I’ve loved Johnny’s music for years, back from his days in the high-energy combo Asteroid B-612 right through his Easy Action project, up to his more rootsy stuff with the Secrets. I even saw them as a four-piece the year before opening for Birdman in Valencia, but nothing could prepare me for the show they were about to deliver in Javea.
It was Johnny on guitar and vocals, Julian on bass and Isidro, formerly of Wau y los Arrghs, on drums. And… It was pure magic. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it as I’m writing this. Of course the ambiance, the crowd and the setting helped too, but their gig transported me to rock ‘n roll heaven.
High energy in the vein of MC5 and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band blended with the emotionally charged melodies of Dream Syndicate and the country rock twang of the Allman Brothers. Stand out songs were the exhilarating ‘Take me Down to Your River,’ the defiant ‘I Am Who I Am’ and the rootsy ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ A master of both a simple Chuck Berry lick as well as a monster riff.
Johnny is an ace guitar player and performer. Although he’s a big guy, he’s super energetic and commands the stage with his heartfelt vocal delivery. And the engine room of Julian and Isidro pump with gusto and pure love of rock ‘n roll. As I said to Johnny and Julian after the gig – thanks for keeping the lineage alive. This is what it’s all about. Need to book them in Amsterdam the minute they finish their new record and go on tour.
Although I had a hell of a time, after their set nothing could top it. The other two bands on the bill were great too, the soul combo the Excitements with their charismatic singer Koko Jean-Davis and the Limboos with their exotic brand of R&B. But it was even more fun just dancing the night away with Leandro, who proceeded to introduce me to just about all of the other 300 punters at the festival.
We ended up at an after party in the middle of the forest in a funky, hippy hacienda, where I blissfully passed out on the porch. A few hours later I was magically transported back to the Valencia airport awaiting my trip back to reality.
Meanwhile keep tuned in, as I’m off to Greece next week for We’re Loud 2. Madre mia.