For the last two and a half decades, Venezuelan bandleader and singer Oscar D’Leon has consistently delivered the most electrifying live performances in the entire salsa genre. It was only fitting, then, that D’Leon and his multipiece orchestra were chosen by local promoter Albert Torres as the closing act for Torres’ fourth annual West Coast Salsa Congress.
An extravagant four-day affair, this year’s congress saw thousands of people from all over the world coming together for a dizzying, overwhelming celebration of salsa, its rhythmic frenzy and dance floor acrobatics.
Clearly relishing the evening’s high-voltage energy, D’Leon was in rare form Sunday, beginning a hefty set of old favorites at about 1:30 a.m., inviting women onstage to dance with him and then showering them with skillful (and double entendre-friendly) vocal improvisations praising their looks.
Years of touring have turned D’Leon’s big band into an instrumental machine of uncanny precision. Unbelievable as it sounds, the show’s set list is entirely improvised. Just as he’s finishing up a number, the singer signals to his players the song that’s coming next. They oblige him by jumping right into it, turning D’Leon’s performance into a volatile marathon of nonstop Afro-Cuban combustion.
This framework of constant improvisation allows the bandleader to spice up his repertoire with all sorts of witty musical references. While performing the crowd favorite “Me Voy Pa’Cali,” for instance, he guided the orchestra into the addictive brass riff of Grupo Niche’s “Cali Pachanguero,” yet another salsa anthem dedicated to the Colombian city.
Other surprises included a buoyant cover of the Celia Cruz hit “La Vida Es un Carnaval,” as well as an impromptu upright-bass solo during the cheeky “Calculadora,” one of many Cuban oldies D’Leon has made his own through his macho delivery and remarkable sense of rhythm.