Friday evenings aren't just for feasting at Las Cazuelas, the Mexican eatery at 15 N. Butler St., just east of Capitol Square. They're for fiestas, but not because the margaritas pack a wallop. Arrive after 7 p.m. and a mariachi band will mesmerize you faster than a shot of Jose Cuervo.
This four-man ensemble, known as Jose R. Morales y los Gavilanes, eschews bandstands and microphones in favor of troubadour-style serenades. Each table in the restaurant is a mini-theater, and each song is handpicked for its small and hungry audience.
One recent Friday, the band, dressed in matching charro - Mexican horsemen's outfits composed of black vests, black pants, crisp white shirts, fancy green bowties and, sometimes, sombreros - performed a lullaby and "The Chicken Dance" for a table with a baby. A couple on a date received a tune reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Romance in Durango," while another got a witty Spanish lesson and a cowboy song.
"Cómo está?" asked bandleader Jose Morales.
"Buenos!" replied one of the eager diners.
"No, no," Morales replied with a chuckle. "Bien!"
"But don't worry; this song is French," added requinto guitarist Hector Rubalcava. "Just kidding! It's Mexican, but I'm French. Just kidding! I'm Mexican."
Even their table-to-table travel had a song, Rossini's "William Tell Overture," known to many as the theme song of The Lone Ranger.
By the time the clever cowboys reached my table, they were suggesting tunes by Jimi Hendrix, Lady Gaga and Led Zeppelin. We settled on a bolero, while the next table received an Italian folk song and a polka with a wild concertina solo. In other words, Rubalcava wasn't kidding when he said the band could play a French song. These guys probably know several.
"We play many different kinds of music," says Morales. "We play some Italian music, some German polka, Puerto Rican music, Cuban music, oldies and, of course, Mexican music. Anything good, we play it."
The group isn't simply familiar with a sprawling list of tunes; it's able to play them at the drop of a hat, with little to no rehearsal.
For Morales, this kind of musicianship is par for the course. Raised in Jalisco, the birthplace of mariachi, he discovered his musical talents as a young child. Then, as a teenager, he became a singer for one of Mexico's most famous touring music groups, Banda Cuisillos. Morales grew up onstage, and learning songs and performing them became second nature for him. Plus, being surrounded by more than a dozen topnotch musicians pushed him to learn music from all over the world.
Finding such polished collaborators proved to be a challenge after his family convinced him to move to Sauk City in 1996. It wasn't until meeting Rubalcava nearly three years ago that los Gavilanes began to take shape. Then, when Morales discovered Las Cazuelas was starting up downtown, he pitched the Friday-night mariachi idea to owner and chef Arturo Ubach.
Ubach, a fervent fan of world music, accepted immediately. For a Mexico City native and longtime Banda Cuisillos listener, having Morales play his restaurant is a bit like being buddies with Bruce Springsteen and the latest lineup of the E Street Band. The guy's a legend, especially among the restaurant's Latin American clientele. Plus, he and his bandmates - Rubalcava, Noel Barrera and Tino Martinez - make fast fans out of strangers, even those who've never heard of mariachi.
"I love cooking, but I also love music, and it's a complement to the food," says Ubach. "Jose and Los Gavilanes have been with me since day one, and to me, they are the best mariachi group in Madison."
They just might be the hardest-working mariachi group in town as well. Morales, Rubalcava, Barrera and Martinez often stay until 10 or 11 p.m. if diners have special requests, or if Luis Montoto, the music-loving programming director of local Spanish-language radio station La Movida (1480 AM), stops by.
But even when the fiesta gets epic, Morales never seems to run out of steam. After the show, he heads home to work on a solo CD, which he's been recording piece by piece for several months. Though a release date hasn't been set, two of its songs have already become favorites on La Movida and WTTN (1580 AM).
"When I write music, hours and hours can pass and I will not realize it," he says. "When I'm playing, there's also no sense of time. It's as if time stops when people are enjoying themselves."
Jose R. Morales y los Gavilanes
Las Cazuelas, 15 N. Butler St., Fridays, 7 pm