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Performance review

Article: Fania 30th Anniversary All-Star Concert, June 18, 1994

by George De Stefano

After Brady Bunch, Partridge Family, and disco revivals, finally a 1970s comeback worth welcoming: the return of the Fania All-Stars.

Many of the masters of salsa have re-united for a three-city tour (San Juan, Miami, and New York) commemorating the 30th anniversary of the record company whose releases defined Afro-Cuban popular music for two decades. The tour came to New York's Madison Square Garden during a mid-June weekend of tropical heat and humidity.

The show was a smoothly produced, four-hour nostalgia trip featuring venerable artists (all either over 50 or close to it.) playing their oldies. Besides the singers and musicians, there were other reminders of salsa's golden age. Veteran radio disc jockey Polito Vega and salsa impresario/kibitzer Izzy Sanabria handled announcer's duties, along with disco-era DJ Paco Navarro. Video monitors provided visual counterpoint to the performances with vintage still photos and film clips of Fania artists in their youth.

Before the veteran salseros, and one incomparable salsera, took the stage, there was a 45-minute set by disco singer-turned sonero Marc Anthony. The Bronx native has vocal power and an ardent, accomplished delivery; he ought to lose the hair-tossing Mr. Vulnerable stage shtick.

Anthony acknowledged his debt to the Fania greats, noting that he'd be nothing without them. And he showed good taste in the tunes he chose to cover — "Ban Ban Guere," and Ruben Blades' "Patria," which, being one of the Panamanian's lesser-known, post-Fania works, seemed a surprising choice. But it soon became apparent why he'd picked it: as an excuse to trot out "la bonita bandera" for the first of the night's too-frequent bouts of flag-waving Puerto Rican nationalism.

Anthony was joined by that other twenty-something bright hope of '90s salsa, La India, for "Vivir Lo Nuestro," their duet from La Combinacion Perfecta.

The main event got off to a shaky start with musical director and Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco leading the orquesta in a ragged "Descarga Fania." Chunky, but agile, Adalberto Santiago gave his all on "Quitate la Mascara" and Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, as lithe and aristocratically handsome as ever at age 60, was in good voice on "Azuquita Mami," which also featured the first of Papo Lucca's riveting piano solos.

The concert didn't really take off, however, until Ismael Miranda delivered a searing "Borinquen Tiene Montuno" that electrified the house. From then on the show was mostly peaks. Eddie Palmieri and Ismael Quintana recaptured the magic of La Perfecta, the pianist's brilliant 1960s aggregation, on "Puerto Rico/Adoración." Palmieri, who also played with Cheo Feliciano and joined Papo Lucca and Larry Harlow for a "tres pianos" descarga, can be a maddeningly erratic performer. But at the Garden he was consistently brilliant, even awe-inspiring, as he alternated harmonically advanced jazz improvisations with driving montunos.

Cheo Feliciano teamed up with a dapper, trombone-brandishing Willie Colón for "El Raton." Colón reminded us that not only does he blow a mean 'bone but he's also a superlative coro singer. Then, when the duet ended, he touted his recently-announced bid for the U.S. Congress. After nearly 30 years of recording and performing, he apparently wants a new challenge, a la his compadre Rubén Blades. His political commitment is praiseworthy, but the quest seems quixotic, not to mention a waste of his real talents.

As good as everyone was, the epiphany came with the appearance of Celia Cruz. La Reina, in a flowing gold lamé gown, blonde wig upswept and fastened to a sort of rhinestone trellis, went beyond regal. She was an apparition — Yemaya herself! The crowd exploded in a joyous frenzy at the sight of her outrageous self. And the voice — dios mio, its power and resilience on "Bemba Colora" left all the male singers in the dust.

The show neared the home stretch with two All Stars standards, "Quitate Tu" and "Ponte Duro." Both numbers featured all the vocalists, but the first showed off el maestro del cuatro, Yomo Toro, whose long solo incorporated bits of "Viejo San Juan," "Bonita Bandera," and "Rock Around the Clock." The short, chunky, and sixtyish Toro ended up playing flat on his back, while the video monitor displayed a twenty-year old clip of him soloing while lying on his back.

The artist whose presence was sorely missed, the late Héctor Lavoe, was evoked through Polito Vega's spoken encomium and a taped medley of his hits accompanied by a video collage of concert performances. Then the entire ensemble performed one of Lavoe's signature tunes, "Mi Gente;" unfortunately, all the massed voices and instruments blurred into an indistinct mess and the show ended on a anticlimactic note.

The Fania All-Stars reunion didn't disappoint, and often exceeded this writer's expectations. Two items on my wish list never materialized — a mini-set featuring Celia, Johnny Pacheco, and Pete "El Conde" doing, say, "Asi Cantaba Papa" or "La Dicha Mia," or, just as glorious, if far more improbable, a re-teaming of Willie Colón and Rubén Blades. Given Blades' enduring bitterness about Fania's business practices, that's about as likely as Colón getting elected to Congress.

The All-Stars reunion was billed as "el ultimo concierto de los grandes de la salsa." Whether that's hype or the real deal, the clock is ticking on the aging lions, and lioness, of salsa. And despite Marc Anthony, La India, and a few others like the young Cuban sonero Miles Peña, sangre nueva seems in short supply.

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