Live review: Latin American Festival, Symphony Park (10/13/2013)

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23rd Latin American Festival
Symphony Park at South Park Mall
Oct. 13, 2013


Barring a few sprinkles at the close of Uruguayan rock sensations NoTeVaGustar's set, the weather held off for the 23rd annual Latin American Festival on Sunday. Sound issues on the main Rumba stage and power outages on the more intimate Carnivale venue posed challenges, cutting short a second set by Ecuador's Swing Original Monks. Due to these snafus, the festival fell behind schedule but had nearly gotten back on track by the time headliner Julieta Venegas hit the main stage.

Mitigating all disruptions was the Latin American Festival's strongest bill to date. For several years, festival organizer the Latin American Coalition has been expanding notions of what Latin music or rock en español can be. Although traditional Salsa and Cumbia were still included in the sonic menu, key performers also touched on electronica, Euro-jazz, funk-inflected indie-pop and everything else under the sun, proving there's no such thing as a "typical" Latin sound.

In fact, only two aspects of this year's celebration were predictable. One: A record-shattering crowd thronged the pond fronting the band shell as a legendary performer took the stage. And two: That performer exceeded the audience's high expectations.


Charismatic headliner Julieta Venegas can be called an alt- artist turned Tropicalia-tinged pop songstress, but that description implies a sense of calculation completely alien to the Mexican singer-songwriter.

Venegas' pop is urgent and accessible, and has always been about moving forward into the now. To underscore this, she opened with the heartfelt and powerful "Hoy" from her current LP Los Momentos. Yet Venegas did not forget that people came here to dance and sing along to music that matters to them.


She kicked into her upbeat "big accordion" sound, launching into sun-dappled pop en español hits like "Limon y Sal." Propulsive and playful tunes dovetailed seamlessly into pensive acoustic guitar and electronica-infused pieces from her latest disc. Throughout her set, Venegas navigated a skillfully constructed high-wire journey through highs and lows, thoughtfulness and exhilaration, displaying genuine spontaneity with soulfulness to spare.


It's a testament to the energy and engagement of the Festival's other acts that Venegas' powerful performance didn't overshadow them. Boasting members from Ecuador, Colombia, Europe and the U.S., Swing Original Monks' mix of tropical ska-funk and syncopated indie-pop was every bit as eclectic as their origins. Co-singers Juana and Adrian Brody look-alike Mr. Bumbass were energetic, idiosyncratic and sexy, riffing and playing off each other like a dancing sketch comedy duo.

Not to be outdone, the rest of the band played quirky Reggaeton-by-way-of Talking Heads dance pop with hard rock swagger, occasionally yelping and shouting like members of an experimental theater troupe cum burlesque crew. The Monk's mix of rap, jazz and alternative cabaret suggested the Brazilian Girls' gleefully bratty sibling, or an ebullient mash-up of Latin rock legends Mano Negra's jauntily rhythmic post punk with the flamboyantly zoot-suited disco/no wave of '80s outfit Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Judging by the audience's snaking hips and bopping heads, the Monks will likely break big with more exposure like this gig.

Orquesta K'Che also included a United Latin Nations in their membership, with Venezuela, Cuba and Puerto Rico represented. Presenting themselves as the Triangle's premiere Latin dance party band, the ten member K'Che was perhaps the Festival's most traditional group, but that's not to say they weren't eclectic. Lead by percussionist Billy Marrero, K'Che's swinging grooves featured warm, punchy horns, nimble but rocking bass and percolating drums. The audience couldn't stop swaying as the band segued easily from mid-tempo grooves to breakneck workouts.

Though the Orquesta relied on several covers, reaching back to Latin dance classics. Powerful tenor vocals were smooth and soulful, particularly on the band's tightly arranged takes on Salsa Romantica. Yet K'Che mixed it up. Though the instrumental line up of horns, keys, guitars and rhythm suggested Salsa purism, the band tackled Merengue, Bolero and Latin Jazz with equal aplomb.


Making the festival its only U.S. stop on their current tour, Colombia's nattily and colorfully attired Monsieur Perine were the festival's jumpinest, jauntiest combo. Launching into buzz cut "Suin Romantican," the sextet's bouncy and joyous brand of Columbian swing captivated the crowd. Building on the percussive down-stroke picking pioneered by the legendary French Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, Monsieur Perine added a pan-Latin mélange of Son, Tango and Salsa. Less Django unchained, than Django transformed, the Colombian combo played finger poppin' pop like "La Playa" and a cover of Mexican bolero king Alvaro Carrillo's "Sabor a Mi" on a sugar rush. It was easy to see why Monsieur Perine is such a smash in South America.


As well as the six string favored by Manouche master Reinhardt, Nicolas Junca played Gypsy jazz runs on charango, a small ukulele-like instrument from the Andes. Likewise, clarinet and accordion, instruments integral to Colombian Cumbia, were folded in the hot jazz template, introducing an engagingly off-kilter quality to the combo's cheerful, swinging pop. Pop chanteuse Catalina Garcia's perky, playfully sexy vocals sealed the deal with a smirk and a kiss.

Prior to the band's set, NoTeVaGustar stepped out among the crowd and were promptly mobbed. People handed babies to guitarist and frontman Emiliano Brancciari, snapping pictures of him holding their offspring. NTVG beat a hasty yet gracious retreat, but the audience's adulation was a stunning illustration of the personal and emotional bond that NTVG forges with its listeners.


Before a crowd draped in blue and white Uruguayan flags, the alt-rock superstars launched into a muscular, impassioned set. Highlighting songs from their 2012 LP El Calor del Pleno Invierno, NTVG did not stint on their sturdy back-catalog (Seven studio LPs and counting). The crowd was transfixed by the band and their sharply dynamic, melodic rock which turned on a dime from gritty to inspirational. The syncopated rock-steady beat of "Pensar" was set by percolating bass, dual guitars, and Brancciari's ardent vocals, gradually gaining surging sax and trombone plus solid harmonies.

The audience sang along, knowing every word to that tune and other favorites like "Al Vacio." Hints of reggae, bluesy prog guitar and ska colored NTVG's rock, and on "El Camino", funky spy fretwork and a sweaty Staxx work-out on horns embellished the rollicking stomp 'n' roll. As a frontman, Brancciari was direct and approachable, with the grounded yet intense quality of everyman rockers like Joe Strummer.

Live, his vocals gained a grainy, lived-in quality not always present on NTVG's LPs, particularly on the growling bass, free jazz sax squonk driven Clash-style rocker "Fuera de Control." By the time the band launched into the shuffling, pulsing groover "Chau", everyone was moving to NTVG's hard hitting, rootsy arrangements and committed performance.

On any other bill, the Uruguayan superstars would be an impossibly hard act to follow. Yet such was the quality and variety of the festival's program that NTVG's riveting performance served as masterful build-up for Julieta Venegas' luminous pay-off. There was no clear stand-out in the 23rd Annual Latin American Festival's stellar line-up, and that is very high praise indeed.

Julieta Venegas setlist
Hoy
Bien O Mal
Seria Feliz
Limon y Sal
Verte Otra Vez
No Hace Falta
Porque
Eres Para Mi
Te Vi
Lento
Ilusion
Vuelve
Algun Dia
Despedida
Un Lugar
Los Momentos
Canciones De Amor
Un Poco De Paz
Sin Documentos
Me Voy
El Presente
- - -
Algo Esta Cambiante
Andar Conmigo
- - -
Esta Vez

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