By Enrique Lopetegui
Dear Gilberto Santa Rosa: You are forgiven.
No, my mind wasn’t blown away as it was when I first heard Willie Colón/Rubén Blades’ Siembra, or when I saw the Afro Cuban All Stars in LA, or when Celia and the Fania All Stars rumbled in the jungle.
But the Puerto Rican singer/bandleader, making his first SA appearance in 10 years, lived up to his reputation and delivered a near-perfect set to the capacity crowd.
That is, of course, if by near-perfect you understand a safety-first show where corny love lyrics and zero poetic depth are compensated by a kick-ass orchestra and a first-class sonero who hit every note and whose improvisation didn’t slip once.
In a little more than 90 minutes, and celebrating 33 years in the business, the former co-singer of Willie Rosario’s orchestra concentrated on the last 20 years of his illustrious career and only strayed from the dance-oriented syrup in the second half of the show, when long jamming stretches seemed to be taking us into a much more challenging stage of the show. But no; it was all an illusion. Right after a killer version of “Qué manera de quererte,” Santa Rosa went right back to the insufferable “Vivir sin ella,” as if unwilling to abandon his clean-cut, gentlemanly persona in favor of a rougher, more visceral, less-technical approach.
People like future hall of famer Santa Rosa could get away with it, which is not the same thing you can say about opening act Juan Esteban, a Dominican character who sang over pre-recorded tracks. He started with a low-octave version of Selena’s “Como la flor.” It’s a good thing Abraham Quintanilla wasn’t there, or else he would’ve sent Jehova’s wrath over all of us at Club Río. JE somewhat vindicated himself with “Periódico de ayer,” showing he can sing and sonear (not an easy task), but he spent most of the song engaged in a dead-on imitation of Héctor Lavoe instead of working on his own style. Is he for real? Is he Vegas material? Is he just trying to make a buck? My humble advice: stay away from cumbias and hits. And please, no more of that silly “Yo soy dominicano, y tú?” (I am Dominican, and you?) No, man, I ain’t Dominican.
Héctor Giovanni (a back-up vocalist for Santa Rosa) is another matter. He’s the real thing, with a nasal tone vaguely reminiscent to that of Víctor Manuelle. He had the advantage of being backed by Santa Rosa’s whole orchestra, and he was the perfect warm-up for a Santa Rosa show that I won’t keep in my heart, but good enough or me to take my hat off to the man.