On the evening of March 22, 1980, Rubén Blades and Willie Colón performed a set of smoldering salsa hits at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey - sharing the bill with Celia Cruz and Charanga 76. The Capitol specialized in legendary rock acts. The Clash, Cheap Trick and The Grateful Dead performed at the venue during that same month of 1980. On March 22, Blades and Colón brought Afro-Caribbean music to the mainstream. Their performance, found recently in the vaults of the Fania label, makes for one of the most transcendental concert recordings in the history of salsa. ...MORE >
On the evening of March 22, 1980, Rubén Blades and Willie Colón performed a set of smoldering salsa hits at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey - sharing the bill with Celia Cruz and Charanga 76. The Capitol specialized in legendary rock acts. The Clash, Cheap Trick and The Grateful Dead performed at the venue during that same month of 1980. On March 22, Blades and Colón brought Afro-Caribbean music to the mainstream. Their performance, found recently in the vaults of the Fania label, makes for one of the most transcendental concert recordings in the history of salsa.
Blades and Colón are in their prime here. At the time, they were touring in support of Siembra - the anthemic album that elevated Afro-Caribbean music into a new level of social consciousness and lyrical sophistication. Five of the seven tracks here are culled from Siembra: "Plástico," "Buscando Guayaba," "Dime," "Ojos," and, of course, "Pedro Navaja." The other two are the best known songs off Metiendo Mano, Blades' debut with Willie Colón: "Pablo Pueblo" and "Plantación Adentro."
During the '70s, Fania was notorious for assembling the most talented Latin musicians of the time under one label - and the band that accompanies Rubén on this concert is a conglomerate of legends: Salvador Cuevas on bass; "el profesor" Joe Torres on piano; Lewis Kahn, Leopoldo Pineda and José Rodrigues on trombones; and Johnny Almendra on timbales.
Still, it is Rubén's vocalizing that steals the show. Anyone who has seen Blades in a live setting knows that the singer showcases the qualities of a real sonero in concert: his admiration for such masters as Cheo Feliciano and Ismael Rivera is no coincidence. Studio recordings emphasize the mellifluous qualities of Rubén's voice. In concert, he lets himself go.
The show begins, appropriately enough, with the infamous intro of "Plástico": that hilarious disco beat that quickly morphs into the familiar rhythm of salsa. The tempo is slightly faster than in the original studio version, and the orchestra swings with tight precision from the very first note. The details of a live performance - Rubén's improvisations; the cowbell accents; the occasional piano flourishes emerging loud and clear in the mix - add texture and electricity to a classic hit.
The crowd at the Capitol was clearly familiar with Rubén's repertoire. "Pablo Pueblo," the unforgettable opening track off Metiendo Mano, is received with loud cheers. The narrative, about a working class citizen betrayed by the morally bankrupt governments of Latin America, remains timely more than three decades after it was released.
As he introduces an extended version of the funky "Buscando Guayaba," Blades makes a statement that continues to preoccupy him to this day: the fact that salsa is, in reality, a generic umbrella term encompassing a number of song formats that are mostly Cuban in origin. "Buscando Guayaba," he explains, is a tribute to those Cuban roots. It is interesting to note that in 2009, the singer released an album, Cantares Del Subdesarrollo, with the intention of honoring the Cuban origins of tropical music. His ideals have remained consistent.
The bass sounds particularly ferocious on this version, and the instrumentalists trade solos - championed by an enthused Rubén. Just like in the studio version, he repeats his famous "solo de boca" (mouth solo), emulating the sounds meant to be played by a guitarist who never showed up.
A sterling composition by the late Puerto Rican genius Tite Curet Alonso, "Plantación Adentro" is played here complete with the spoken word intro by Willie Colón.
At the time of this recording, the partnership between Blades and Colón was blossoming - another brilliant effort, Canciones Del Solar De Los Aburridos, was still to come. Speaking to the audience, Blades can be heard teasing Colón, asking if the song that they were playing next was "Che Che Colé" - one of the hits that the trombonist enjoyed with his other musical partner in crime, the great Héctor Lavoe.
Blades also injects humor into the coda of "Dime" - perhaps the most underrated song from the Siembra LP. The main melodic line here is seeped in a glowing feeling of nostalgia.
Before performing a high-voltage rendition of the Johnny Ortiz tune "Ojos," Rubén can be heard pacifying the audience's frantic requests for "Pedro Navaja." And there it is, at the end of the show - and the final track on this album.
Of the seven tracks on this CD, "Pedro Navaja" is the only one that was also included in Rubén's previous concert album - the explosive Live!, recorded with Son Del Solar and released in 1990 on the Elektra label. The 1980 version is even better, framed by this epic trombone section and a young vocalist who is just beginning to discover the depth of his own musical vision - merging Kafka with Kurt Weill; urban fables with danceable beats. Seeped in a deliciously dark sense of humor, "Pedro Navaja" is the kind of story that you could find in a Gabriel García Marquez novel.
As you listen to this historic recording from the Fania vaults, you will inevitably begin to consider that perhaps the live versions of these songs are better than the original studio sessions. The sound is less polished, sure enough, but Blades' voice fills these tunes with color, texture, and the instinctive wisdom of an authentic sonero. There is a tendency among salsa aficionados to think of Rubén as a virtuoso songwriter above all things. If anything, this album reaffirms his privileged position as a performer of remarkable grace and timing.
These days, Rubén Blades is living again in the city that gave birth to Pedro Navaja. After a stint as Panama's minister of tourism, he is planning a full fledged return to recording and performing. As the music on this CD can attest, his legacy reaches out well beyond the parameters of salsa. Now more than ever, Rubén Blades emerges as one of the most soulful singers ever to grace the landscape of Latin music.