The first edition of L.A. Salsa Festival 2004, a much-needed local event, saved the best for last. Unfortunately, when it came time for Puerto Rico’s venerable El Gran Combo to perform, a strict curfew conspired against the legendary salsa orchestra, which was allowed to perform a scant four numbers. It was a sad ending to a solid evening that offered hourlong sets by salsa crooner Gilberto Santa Rosa and trashy merengue idol Elvis Crespo.
One of Puerto Rico’s most commercially successful salseros, the gentlemanly Santa Rosa began the proceedings with a medley of tunes showcasing his trademark style of frothy arrangements and smooth vocal delivery. Hardcore salsa aficionados may argue that the singer’s polished sonics flirt too closely with pop. To Santa Rosa’s credit, his multipiece band is extremely tight — and it knows how to expertly raise the tempera-ture during the most danceable hooks.
Crespo’s merengue fest is a different story altogether. The singer, also from Puerto Rico, tackles the quintes-sential Dominican dance format with ease, exploiting an infectious formula of nasal vocalizing, anthemic cho-ruses and impossibly funky bass lines. Although Crespo is clearly the least original of the festival’s three acts, he was the one who elicited the strongest response from the capacity audience.
Unlike Santa Rosa, the Gran Combo institution (40 years of existence) does not need any warmup time to get things rolling — a good thing, considering the group’s visibly disappointed band members had only 30 minutes to showcase their talent.
Focusing on proven hits such as “Brujeria” and the hilarious hymn to laziness “No hago mas na,” El Combo used its time wisely. From the soulful interplay of its three singers to their cheeky dance moves and the spiraling piano patterns of bandleader Raphael Ithier, El Combo delivered an instant lesson in the beauty of no-frills salsa jams.