Romeos and Julieta

Julieta Venegas, Tijuana’s most vital singer-songwriter, had the Mercury Lounge in the palm of her hand on April 3 when she broke into fluent Spanglish. “¡Arriba Tijuana!” she said, acknowledging the shouts of her many roquero suitors. “Could I have some more vocal on the monitor?” A smattering of nervous laughter betrayed the crowd’s self-recognition—finally, a Latin rock star as bilingual as Nueva York. Even though all of Venegas’s lyrics are in Spanish, they tell personal stories familiar on both sides of the border, and even though she comes from a very Mexican folk tradition, her songs can cut like PJ Harvey, haunt like Tom Waits.

A self-described quiet type with a very loud talent, Venegas took the stage tapping out the ominous intro to Bueninvento‘s “Casa Abandonada” on an accordion, foreshadowing her mournful musings about unanswered phone calls to an abandoned house. Switching to acoustic guitar, she strummed the archetypal folkie chords of “Hoy No Quiero,” an angry lament that mutates into anthemic postpunk. The rasp in her voice may remind some of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, but Venegas’s range is so powerful she can pull your guts right out of you, like she did in Aquí‘s “Esta Vez,” built around a simple piano figure and the narrator’s cryptic catharsis.

Venegas’s performance was so finely textured and intimate that we could overlook her missing bassist and drummer—this was a promotional trip for a new compilation called Escena Alterlatina, which features U.S.-based bands also in the house that night. Orixa’s chaotic set ranged from sludgy rap-rock to salsa to a rousing cover of Jorge Ben’s “Umbabarauma”; Volumen Cero’s Gibson/Telecaster tension produced an extremely polished if somewhat unoriginal power pop. But if there is an alt-Latin “scene” to speak of, it begins and ends with the spell Venegas casts with the power of a well-crafted song. —Ed Morales

What Would the Community Think

“Roxy Called Racist for Axing Run-DMC,” blared the headline in Friday’s New York Post. And indeed, on first glance, a case could be made. Run-DMC were set for a homecoming date at the Roxy on Tuesday, April 3. But show promoter Steve Weitzman claims he was notified on the evening of Wednesday, March 28, by Roxy night manager Morgan Mclean that the venue was canceling the show. “He kept saying, ‘We don’t do hip-hop,’ ” reports Weitzman, who says he had a verbal agreement with the Roxy as far back as February 5 to put on a Run-DMC show—clearly a hip-hop event.

As Weitzman has it, management from the Roxy also told him that the problem was not Run-DMC, but the Beatnuts, the act Weitzman had selected to open. “I asked around to other promoters,” says Andy Griggs, events coordinator at the Roxy, “and what I found was grim. Problems at the door, a very thuggish crowd.” Griggs says he downloaded some Beatnuts music and found a song about killing cops. “It’s not the kind of thing we want to promote,” he says. (According to the Beatnuts’ manager and publicist, the group has no such song.)

Run-DMC’s label, Arista, suggested replacing the Beatnuts with Koffee Brown, a relatively innocuous r&b group, or cutting all opening acts and just letting Run-DMC perform; they also offered to provide extra security. Says Arista’s Karen Yee, “It was very much a case of ‘The Beatnuts bring a bad crowd, and even if you cancel them now, everyone already knows about the show and will be here anyway.’ ”

“Bullshit” is how Juju of the Beatnuts describes talk of security risks. “We’ve never had violent outbreaks during or after our performances.” Weitzman adds, “I don’t want to say it, but it seems racist. It seems like they want to get on the good side of the neighborhood and not do a black act.”

Roxy owner Gene Dinino says it’s a simple matter of breach of contract. “We had a contract for Run-DMC. When the ticket sales were low, Weitzman added multiple groups to the roster without the club’s permission. When we found out, the show was canceled. When I declined to pay his expenses, he played the race card and went to the press.”

To hear Griggs talk about why hip-hop shows bring special risks is to understand the fine line between racism and a club’s idea of civic responsibility. “The police just hate SUVs being double-parked,” says Griggs. “It’s always this frantic mob scene at the door. ‘How can I get in for free?’ and ‘I’m on the guest list and my posse gotta be let in,’ and all that. It’s a nerve-racking experience. I don’t have the staff.”

But Griggs sounds just as frightened by white acts. “When I did Bouncing Souls, H2O, and Sick of It All, I was scared. Moshing in the pit, problems on the street with the police—all these little white kids from Westchester. They were 10 times worse than any hip-hop show I’ve done. I am responsible for 2200 people. We’re in a political climate where we have to take these responsibilities seriously.”

Contractual disputes will likely be resolved in the courts—at press time, Weitzman says he is out $16,000 in deposits and advertising, and is filing suit against the Roxy. But beyond the culpability for one canceled concert lie broader issues. “The bigger story,” says Anthony Borelli, district manager of Community Board 4 (in which the Roxy resides), “is the popularity of this area for both clubs and residents, and the conflicts that brings.”

And the expansion of residencies in and around areas zoned for clubs leaves a dearth of venues that allow mid-sized hip-hop shows. Says Pro, manager for the Beatnuts, “As far as I know, you got 650 [capacity] at S.O.B.’s and Wetlands, and then there’s Hammerstein and that’s 2800 or more. You can’t have a show between 1000 and 3000 people. Considering New York is the mecca of hip-hop, that’s what’s saddest about all of this.” —Bill Werde