"Lavoe Vive: Tributo Histórico," May 1, 1999

Hector La Voe y Alfredito de La Fe. Foto de la Colección de Tommy Muriel

Concert review by: Co-Editors Tommy Muriel and Miguel Cruz

Editorials by: Tommy Muriel

[NOTE: backstage concert interviews by Jaime Torres-Torres (El Nuevo Dia, www.endi.com) and Luis Torres Negrón (EFE), as well as their own concert reviews, were used as reference sources for this article.]

Lineup: Willie Colon (trombone, singer), Yomo Toro (cuatro), Ismael Miranda, Adalberto Santiago, Cano Estremera, Tito Nieves, Juan "Barbarito" Bayona, Tito Rojas (singers); Edgar Reyes (timbales, concert co-producer), Reynaldo Jorge (trombone, musical director), Leopoldo Pineda (trombone), Luis "Perico" Ortiz, Juancito Torres, Jorge Luis "Ito" Torres (trumpets); Milton Cardona, Eddie Montalvo (congas), Jose Mangual Jr. (bongos), Gilberto "El Pulpo" Colon, Papo Lucca, Prof. Joe Torres (piano), Pedro Perez (bass), Jose Lugo (keyboards), Hector "Pichie" Perez, Giovanni Lugo (coros).


    Hector Lavoe (1946-1993) was not only one of the most supremely talented, charismatic and genuine performers in Latin music, but also one of its most beloved and controversial celebrities. Twist or fate or not, this tribute to his music and memory, by inheriting his artistic name, also inherited most of his own characteristics. Of course, this means that controversy itself, along with the beauty and sharpness of his musical legacy, were part of the menu. And pretty much indeed, the two faces of Hector Lavoe were also represented here: his sharp wit, callejero feel and malice in his singing; and his off days when he'd do the most bizarre things on stage. To witness and comprehend what really happened in there (and backstage) you had to be there. We (Miguel and I) were there (but not backstage, since our contact, Jose Lugo, was nowhere to be found… allegedly) and this is what we saw, in full detail.

    Plena Libre was the opening act, and what a perfect choice it was. Since the old Cortijo with Ismael Rivera days, there hasn’t been a single group who could play Puerto Rico’s national rhythms with such authority, vitality and mass appeal like these guys. Commanded by veteran bassist Gary Nuñez, this band truly accomplished their mission of warming the crowd with an exciting 45-minute set. And their medley of Lavoe’s hits was superb. It’s worth noting, by the way, that for this show the band was reinforced with the virtuosity of trombonist Rafy Torres (of Puerto Rico All-Stars and Descarga Boricua fame), considered by many peers as Puerto Rico’s very best in his instrument. Torres, by the way, recently replaced the late Carmelo Montalvo as the fourth voice of the legendary vocal quartet Los Hispanos, still led by his father Wison Torres.

    Next, after a nearly 30 minutes pause, in came Papo Lucca, his father Don Quique Lucca and the guys from Sonora Ponceña, who also showed their own ammunition on stage. It’s no secret that Ponce’s musical flag have been praised as the dancers’ most preferred salsa band; and their performance clearly proved that point as the aisles were crowded by dancing couples during their whole performance. Their set consisted of crowd pleasers like "Fuego En El 23," "Borinquen," "Ahora Si," and "Sonora Pa’l Bailador." Curiously, they didn’t include any song from their current album "On Target" on their set. Yet, curiously enough as well, they finished their set with "Todo Tiene Su Final," a tune from Hector’s very last official album as a member of Willie Colon’s band. Papo, as usual, mesmerized the audience with his piano virtuosity, as the band, as usual, sounded as powerful and tight as ever. Heriberto Santiago, their lead trumpeter and soloist for more than 15 years, also excelled that night, as did the band’s new singer, whose vocal style and timbre is very similar to that of Luisito Carrion.


The main entrée:

    With a couple of last time changes in the lineup, the main band consisting of former Willie Colon and/or Hector Lavoe band mates entered the stage (see the lineup above). Let’s start by justifying, where possible, the appearance on stage of performers who had never been directly related to Hector Lavoe or his band. Joe Santiago, whose name appeared on the marquee, didn’t make it, so he was replaced by Pedro Perez, undisputedly Puerto Rico’s most sought after bassist today. The lead singers for both Plena Libre and Sonora Ponceña (Giovanni Lugo and Pichie Perez, respectively) were on stage doing the coros. Not a bad move, but usually both Eddie Montalvo and Jose Mangual Jr., who were on stage that night, did that job for Hector in the past. In fact, I don’t remember a performance by Hector’s band with more than two people fronting it, being Hector himself one of those two. Strange move by the producers, but not a bad move either. Jose Lugo’s specific work here was to reproduce Willie’s original string arrangements on tunes like "El Cantante," "Periódico De Ayer" and "Aléjate." So, within that context, looking at the concert’s repertoire, his presence on stage was very sporadic. As for Ito Torres, the only possible direct link between him and Hector Lavoe is the Fania All-Stars. But Torres entered the stellar band a year after Hector’s death. Anyway, on his favor, it should be noted that the two trumpet players mostly identified with Hector’s band, Ray Maldonado and Jose Febles (who arranged many of Hector’s solo hits), are now deceased. And the third possibility, virtuoso Hector "Bomberito" Zarzuela, was unavailable because of conflicting schedules. And, anyway, Ito’s presence didn’t hurt at all; on the contrary, his pyrotechnics on lead trumpet spiced up the band’s sound nicely. And he’s still improving himself as a soloist as well. As for a mysterious percussionist appearing on stage playing miscellaneous effects (and subbing for Mangual Jr. on bongos for a couple of tunes), his name still remains a mystery, and that’s the sole reason why his name is not listed in the credits above. If fact, while introducing the band members, nobody mentioned his name either.

    After clarifying all that, let’s begin with the main event’s details. Juan Bayona (no relationship with Sonora Ponceña’s ‘Juana Bayona’ whatsoever) perhaps wasn’t the most appropriate person to sing "El Cantante," but he did it with respect. Bayona, who dressed like Hector Lavoe on his heydays, was invited to this event via New York and, prior to this performance, he was pretty much unknown in Puerto Rico. And yes, he wasn’t, in many people’s opinion, the best candidate to sing such an important tune, which Ruben Blades originally wrote for himself and, on his own words, "ended up being Hector’s biography." But Bayona has the wit and sings from the heart. So who knows, we may have just witnessed a raw diamond on the make. Expect more from this guy in the future. As for the band, there was some confusion on stage: while the brass section was reading Jose Febles’ stage band adaptation of Willie Colon’s original score, the rhythm section was playing from the original studio chart. This was just the first visible symptom of the apparent lack of organization, in general terms, which was palpable on stage during the main show. And no, this wasn’t Reynaldo Jorge’s fault. I would rather blame the producers for this, but we’ll retake this subject later. Luis "Perico" Ortiz, who played like on his younger days, saved this error with an effective, right placed trumpet solo. While many trumpeters love to capture the listener’s attention with high octave notes, Perico has made his own name by playing the right notes with clarity, authority and, most important, with that sense of musical finesse and beauty that only few people can truly master. (As a parenthesis and responding to an e-mail question from a friend: it wasn’t Perico, but Jose Febles, the trumpet soloist on the original studio version of "El Cantante." All other trumpet solos on that album ("Comedia," Fania, 1977-1978), however, are indeed Perico’s signatures.)

    Adalberto Santiago spiced up the evening and shifted the band into full drive with an exciting rendition of "Aléjate," from Lavoe’s 1980 album "El Sabio." Although Adalberto had to read the lyrics since he didn’t rehearse with the band (Ok, it may not look good for a singer to read on stage but hey, even Pavarotti does it, and in greater concert halls…), his performance was simply superb. He even included in his soneos hints of his anthem "Quítate La Mascara," taking advantage of the similarities between the lyrics theme and the chorus chord changes between the aforementioned tune with Ray Barretto and Hector’s tune. Contrasting with his performance a month ago with Tipica’73, Adalberto was at his peak this night. Gilberto "El Pulpo" Colon, one of the most gifted, if unjustly underrated, pianists in salsa history and, quietly, the most showcased soloist of the night, crafted the first of his solos here. We had the opportunity to interview El Pulpo one week after the concert and he gave us in exchange the ride of a lifetime. Almost every imaginable subject: rejection, ghetto life, drugs, the musical scene and, of course, a very deep portrait of Hector Lavoe, was covered on this interview to be published shortly. Stay tuned.

    Ismael Miranda, who was truly one of Hector’s closest friends (after El Pulpo), came in next with "Periódico De Ayer," from Hector’s second solo album "De Ti Depende." Miranda, who has been wearing glasses on stage lately, also read the opening lyrics for this one before shifting into overdrive for the soneos. As Santiago, Miranda is one of the few gifted soneros of all times whose vocal timbre and register seem to defy the law of time. He not only can sing on the same chords and vocal ranges of 30 or 35 years ago, but he does it better than then, with all the malice, sabor and experience he has gained along his career. I must admit, however, that it was a rare experience for me to hear Ismael singing this tune in the same original chord scales that were catered to Hector’s range, since although their vocal range was the same, Hector’s timbre and Ismael’s are way too different. Ismael, who despite the ups and lows in his career, has always been a way better organized singer than Lavoe, could easily shift between styles and chords. Lavoe, perhaps as a product of his own irregularities, always preferred to sing in the lower, callejero style ranges, while at the same time keeping his vocal style simple and unsophisticated, truer to his barrio audience. There was a time, though, that Ismael’s and Hector’s timbre were similar: the early 70’s, where Ismael’s voice was just beginning its migration from the kid-pitched voice of his Harlow days to his bolder sound of today, while Hector wasn’t yet looking for the lower range (as in "Juanito Alimaña"). This sure was some revelation for those still puzzled trying to imagine how Ismael used to pinch-hit in Willie Colon’s original band whenever Hector arrived late to a gig or didn’t show at all. And yes, you have just read a fact.

    Edgar Reyes, the band’s timbalero and the mastermind behind this concert’s conception, made a brief pause to thank the audience for coming and, as the "born-again" Christian that he is, to make an invocation. This act, curiously, had a double meaning, as it also served as the perfect cue for "El Todopoderoso," Hector’s very first single as a soloist and a co-composition between him and arranger Willie Colon. "El clásico" Tito Nieves, who once sang coros with Lavoe’s band, was in charge of this tune. Unlike all the other artists appearing on stage up to this point, Hector’s former maraquero didn’t add any original soneos of his own, remaining truer to his former boss’ version as much as possible. Encouraged by Nieves himself, the horn section took front stage with a crowd-pleasing, fired up moña, as each one (Reynaldo, Perico, Ito, Juancito Torres and Leopoldo Pineda) took their turn to stretch out and solo.

    There were the days in Hector Lavoe’s career where he would wow his audience to deafening delirium, with superb vocal strength and total control of the stage. And nobody evoked those heydays here better than Carlos "Cano" Estremera, as he delivered a master class on "soneo 101. " The self-proclaimed "owner of ad-libbing" rose to the occasion (and justified his motto) with an inspired performance that, according to many people in the audience, was the highest point of the show. He didn’t challenge anybody this time, but he didn’t brake for no one either, singing even during the moñas and complementing his soneos with phrases of other Lavoe hits. He even spiced up El Pulpo’s already fiery piano solo with ingenious scats. Willie and Yomo Toro’s presence were the show’s main attraction (not to mention the selling ticket for the event), but El Cano just simply stole the starring role with his performance. And he did it with clever finesse. Just like Hector used to do it when he performed with the Fania All-Stars.

    Then, of course, although we understandably would prefer to forget this, we all know that Hector had his awkwardly off days. These were the days when Hector would appear on the most bizarre schemes: performing under severe doses of drugs and/or alcohol, exaggeratedly loading his tunes with f-words, or just simply remaining silent on stage while the band played on "automatic pilot." Unfortunately, that image of Hector Lavoe was also present during this show and Tito "Dale Pa’Bajo" Rojas had the dubious "honor" of evoking this other side of El Cantante. Honestly, I’ve seen Rojas on much worse nights, believe me, but no matter if this was just a "bad hair day" or fate of destiny, this was the worst scenario ever for him to have an off show. The story behind Rojas’ performance here has many sides, and all the controversy behind all this will be covered later on the "Backstage chatter" section of this report. By now, I’ll just end this theme here by stating that he didn’t have the same luck of Hector, who even in his worst days the audience just wouldn’t stop applauding him. This night, approximately 8000 people booed Tito Rojas for his antics on "Juanito Alimaña," a tune recorded by Lavoe on his 1982 4-song, 35 minutes long album "Vigilante" with Willie Colon’s band. In fact, some impertinent member from the audience had the guts for throwing a beer can into the stage, with "El Gallo Salsero" as the main target. Luckily for everyone, he missed (but MC Nestor Galan was just a couple of inches away from that loose "silver bullet," and fortunately it missed him too). Tremendo gallo…

    After this occurred, the event would undeniably lose momentum, falling into such a slump that even both Ismael Miranda and Tito Nieves, each with great, exciting renditions of "Bandolera" and "Paraíso De Dulzura," respectively, couldn’t break. Miranda did a splendid performance of this track from the "Comedia" album (despite the fact that Tito Rojas was still on stage and didn’t want to get off) while El Pulpo once again displayed his virtuosity on piano. In fact, this was the tune that unveiled his piano abilities for the whole world to see back in 1978. Tito Nieves, on the other hand, complemented his performance with a dancing group doing some great choreography on stage (by this time, his same named colleague had finally and successfully found his way backstage). Noticeably, Tito wore a tee shirt that had portraits of the late Lavoe, Ismael Rivera and Frankie Ruiz on its front side with a title that, in Spanish, means "Salsa’s Big Three."

    An unexpected and highly anti-climatic 15-minute pause preceded Willie Colon’s long awaited performance. By this time, some serious changes were made on stage: Willie’s current band’s musical director, Ennio Gatti, made an unexpected appearance sitting in on piano for Prof. Joe Torres; Milton Cardona replaced Eddie Montalvo on congas and the three trumpeters "disappeared" from stage. Plus, as is the tradition in Willie’s bands, the trombonists were in front and center stage along with Willie. While the original idea was for the other artists to evoke Hector’s soloist era and Willie himself to build up on Hector’s days with his group, for some unexplainable reason, Willie performed just three songs when there was plenty of material to choose from their many albums together. Willie’s startup tune was somewhat predictable, since this medley consisting of "Che Che Cole," "Barrunto," "Te Conozco" and "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" has been his current band’s warm-up tune for more than a decade. But here the trombone trilogy of Willie, Reynaldo Jorge and Leopoldo Pineda sounded like a match made in Heaven, plus Juancito Torres, who quietly sat in on coro, was invited by Willie to do a cameo solo on trumpet for an unforgettable rendition. We know that Edgar Reyes has never ever been a member of Willie Colon’s band, so he understandably seemed kind of out of place at times during this medley, but he did a fine job here even with the evident lack of rehearsal time.

    For the next tune, "Canto a Borinquen" (from the first volume of "Asalto Navideño," Fania, 1971), Willie introduced cuatro virtuoso Yomo Toro to a thunderous ovation from the audience. And Yomo wasted no time in proving why he is still revered as the king in the Puerto Rican national string instrument, spicing this aguinaldo a la Willie as only he can do it. Willie’s voicing here, by the way, was superbly brilliant, clear and straight from the heart. From this song on, the atmosphere on stage was more of a jam session than of a tribute concert, and Willie and Yomo improvised a cuatro/trombone duo that served as an intro for a show-stopping version of "La Murga," the actual culmination point of the show. It wasn’t until this point in the show that Prof. Joe Torres actually appeared on stage for a one-on-one with Papo Lucca, who also sat in here.

    After this, an even more unexplainable, anti-climatic 15-minute break followed. Finally, the show came to its official end with "Mi Gente," Hector’s anthem wrote by Johnny Pacheco and where all artists appearing on stage with the exceptions of Cano Estremera (who left in a rush for another gig) and Tito Rojas (for more than understandable reasons) blended in for a final tribute. Curiously, the arrangement of "Mi Gente" used here was the Fania All-Stars version (done by Pacheco and Bobby Valentin) and not the score that Willie Colon wrote for Hector’s band (appearing on Hector’s first solo album "La Voz," Fania, 1975).

    In general terms, "Hector Lavoe Vive" wasn’t a bad show, and it couldn’t be a bad show with such top cats on stage. But a better, way better organization of ideas, time and repertoire would have converted this event into the classic that everybody expected to witness. Perhaps a second remake of this concept, this time focusing on Hector’s period with Willie Colon (and, preferably, with Willie himself leading the pack) should be imminent, since that golden era was very shyly reviewed here. The original concert title (and the one appearing on the tickets) was, loosely translated, "The Two Sides Of Hector Lavoe," and looking at it strictly from the musical point of view, this concert came up rather short in that regard. As for the physical and sociological dual sides of El Cantante, although this wasn’t planned that way, fate has it that all the different phases in the public life of Hector Lavoe surfaced freely during the event. Then, there’s only one final coinciding opinion: Hector Lavoe’s music and legacy will never ever be forgotten. On El Cano’s spicy soneos, on any Yomo’s single cuatro string plucked, on the voices of Ismael Miranda and Adalberto Santiago, on any performance by Montalvo, El Pulpo, Milton or Mangual Jr., and whenever and wherever Willie Colon performs (alone or with anybody), Hector Lavoe will live forever. Even Celia Cruz stated it loud and clear on her last appearance in PR with Fania in June 11, 1994 (and it was recorded for posterity in the album "Live In Puerto Rico"): Hector Lavoe Vive!


Backstage Chatter:

    Undeniably, the major breaking news in all this event (and, by the time I wrote this lines on May 12, 1999, they are still talking about this on all salsa circuits in PR) was Tito Rojas’ sub-show. In fact, this unfortunate incident forced him to postpone, for a while, the promotion of his upcoming performance at Bellas Artes this summer. Yes, you read right: Bellas Artes, as in "Centro De Bellas Artes," PR’s main concert hall. It would have been unjust of my part to just publish this review sooner without compiling the many points of view about this incident.

    First, here’s what happened on stage, in full detail. As Nestor Galan announced Tito Rojas entrance on stage, unexpectedly, after a considerable amount of time and silence on stage, Reynaldo Jorge cued the band to begin performing "Juanito Alimaña," as Juan Bayona was the singer appearing on stage. Tito Rojas appeared halfway during the opening lyrics, humming a few bars with Bayona before the coro enters. This is where actually Bayona, after exposing the theme, exits stage, leaving Rojas with the task of expanding on the theme with his soneos. But for some reason Rojas wasn’t able to construct fluid lines for the soneos, opting then for an easy exit: recapping on some of his popular mottoes ("Tremendo gallo," "Dale pa’bajo," "No respetan… a nadie," "Perdona, sa’es…," etc.). But this didn’t work either, as many of the musicians’ faces began turning red. Resuming: there never was any sync between Tito Rojas and the band. None of these musicians have played with Tito Rojas before, and Tito’s mistake of not rehearsing or, at least, getting familiarized with the tune cost him way dearly. In my opinion, a good conga solo by Eddie Montalvo or a timbale solo by Edgar Reyes himself could have, at least partly, saved the tune.

    Up to this point, this was just a bad night for Tito, but, in his desperation after being booed, he tried anything to rectify his error… only to worsen the whole situation. First, he tried to crank out his current single ("Por Mujeres Como Tu"), but this was the worst decision he has ever made, not to mention he chose the worst scenario ever to pull such a prank. Next, he began singing "La Maria" (a tune from the Fania 1973 album "Lo Mato," officially the last one by Hector with Willie’s original band) a cappella, since no one in the band dared to follow him. Here is where actually speculations about Tito being "under the effects of alcohol and/or you name what else" began running wild between audience members. The concert producers decided that the show had to go on, and Galan introduced Ismael Miranda back on stage for his second tune of the night ("Bandolera"). But Tito wouldn’t step off (to the dismay of the screaming audience), as he looked towards Miranda (with whom he had sang in duo before), as in asking for a duo spin-off with no results, as Miranda knowingly ignored his presence. It wasn’t until this song finished that one of the producers walked Tito off the stage.

    Tito Rojas was scheduled to do another song, "Todo Tiene Su Final," but this tune was written-off from the song list by the producers, since (quote) "he wasn’t in proper condition… he apparently had his mind blown away by something he consumed (end of quote)." But Cano Estremera, who has always shown respect for Tito Rojas, has a very different point of view of this incident: (quote) "He was desperate looking for his reading glasses, since he didn’t do his homework of learning his tune’s lyrics (note: as a reminder, notice once again that both Ismael Miranda and Adalberto Santiago read their lyrics on stage). So I asked Juan Bayona to walk out with Tito and sing the song lyrics and then let him alone on the soneos… For what I did see (backstage), Tito Rojas was fully conscious and in proper condition (end of quote)."

    Two days after the concert, a very ashamed Tito Rojas apologized publicly, both on television and via a press release, for what happened during his performance. He did not only confirm Cano’s version and recognized that he made an error by not rehearsing his tune properly, but he also stated emphatically that he wasn’t under alcohol or drugs influence during his show, (quote) "In fact, I DON’T drink or smoke!" (end of quote). Expanding on this point, it’s worth to notice that Rojas had a liver operation almost three years ago. His glasses, by the way, were never found. And this ends the depiction of what happened with Tito Rojas that night, with all points of view fully covered. Judge by yourself if you want to, but you really had to be there on May 1, 1999 at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium to witness and comprehend what really happened. As for me, this case is closed.

    There were other things to criticize from the show: Cano Estremera, for instance, also told the press that he was scheduled to do two more songs, "Piraña" and "Ah Ah Oh No" (both from Willie’s album "El Juicio," Fania, 1972), but the scores were never found. He, in fact, was the only one who publicly (and heavily) criticized the disorganization of the event. On the other hand, whoever had the idea of letting the beer concessions to sell their beers without first serving them on plastic cups and disposing of the cans properly should be hanged upside down. These kinds of things, on the wrong hands, can be easily turned into deadly projectiles. Think of it, would you? Fortunately, the guy who threw one of these cans into the stage didn’t hit anybody, but imagine what would happen on stage if he did score a hit. Man, what the hell was he thinking, anyway…?

    Well, that wraps it for this review. Our next assignments: The Heineken Jazzfest by the end of May, and the Tribute to Manny Oquendo on August, with a stellar lineup already on plans. But the details for this one will be covered in an upcoming report. Thank you for reading and may God bless you all! Stay tuned…

Inicialmente publicado en Oasis Salsero

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