Grupo Fantasma cemented its reputation as Austin’s best live band long ago. I’ve attended more than 20 of their marathon shows over the last five years, and their funk-infused cumbia rhythms have never failed to make people dance through every single minute. Unfortunately, it seemed for a while that Grupo had reached a glass ceiling commercially, if not artistically. Their 2004 album Movimiento Popular received (and deserved) excellent reviews, but occasional shows outside of Austin still found the band outnumbering the audience. Grupo also suffered from being doubly labeled as a “party band” and as “world music.” Snobs look down on the former label, though it can be applied to any band you can dance to; xenophobes avoid the latter, though it can be applied to any band that doesn’t sing exclusively in English. Both labels narrow down a band’s potential fan-base; if there’s any band in this city whose music should appeal to the widest possible demographic, though, it’s Grupo. Prince knows this…and despite the litigious artist he has become over the last year, an endorsement from him still counts for something.
When Prince summoned Grupo Fantasma to be his backing band for a star-studded Golden Globes afterparty in November 2006, it was the beginning of a wild and unexpected ride. During that gig, Grupo held its own behind Prince’s guitar playing, Talib Kweli’s rapping, and Marc Anthony’s and Mary J. Blige’s singing. If that isn’t a testament to the band’s adaptability, I don’t know what is. Last year, the band backed Prince at the Super Bowl, opened for him in London, and did a residency at his short-lived 3121 club in Las Vegas. The union between Prince and Grupo Fantasma was symbiotic: it enabled Prince to do his best Santana impersonation, something he couldn’t accomplish on his own (listen to 3121‘s corny “Te Amo Corazon” for proof), and it boosted both Grupo’s profile and confidence. In the middle of it all, the band found time to record its third album, Sonidos Gold.
29 May 2008: The Mohawk Austin, TX
In my opinion, Sonidos Gold is not only Grupo’s best album by a wide margin, but it is also one of the best albums any band in any genre has released so far this year. With the help of new lead vocalist/percussionist Jose Galeano—whose uncle played timbales in the original Santana band—Grupo has incorporated more forms of Afro-Latin music into its sound. The music on Sonidos Gold switches from cumbia to salsa to merengue and back again, with detours into Yoruba chants (“Rumba y Guaguanco”), straight funk (“Bacalao Con Pan”, “Gimme Some”), dub (“Cumbia de los Parajitos”) and even spaghetti Western (“Perso Fra I Mesquites”). The band shows off more than they did on Movimiento, which is a good thing: even the longest songs feel like they could’ve gone on longer without losing the listener’s interest. The production is laced with enough reverb and delay to give the music an almost psychedelic effect. Sonidos Gold demonstrates such immense improvement that, as much as I recommend the band’s previous albums to anyone who isn’t already familiar with them, I myself no longer desire to listen to them.
Needless to say, the members of Grupo had a lot to celebrate when they held their Sonidos Gold release party, and both levels of the Mohawk’s standing area were full of people ready to celebrate with them. The band played a 90-minute set that ran through almost every song on the new album, along with choice cuts from their previous three. They left the audience very little time to breathe between songs, segueing instantly from one to the next until they blurred into each other. Galeano kept his stage banter to a minimum, occasionally thanking the audience for its continued support. Guitarists Beto Martinez and Adrian Quesada took turns inserting sky-scraping guitar solos into the songs, while new baritone saxophonist Josh Levy cut through the entire sound system with stomach-rumbling interjections.
The band spent the latter portion of the set paying tribute to its influences: an excellent cover of James Brown’s “Soul Power”, a nearly flawless 15-minute Santana medley, and an instrumental cover of Prince’s “Chelsea Rodgers” that bettered the original. As usual, the audience stayed in motion through every minute of the set. I got almost as much of a kick from watching other people dance as I did from watching the band play.
Hopefully, this triumphant hometown show was just a prelude to a long-overdue national breakthrough. With a blockbuster live show, a stunning new album, and the endorsement of one of this era’s greatest musicians, Grupo Fantasma are closer than ever to becoming a household name. Anglophones, start learning how to roll your “r"s now.