Prince Loves Them; Now so do I

by Allison Doolittle

I got the chance to see Grupo Fantasma at their taping for Austin City Limits last week. Since the concert, Grupo’s songs have commandeered my iPod — I just can’t stop listening to the explosive vibes of this Latin fusion band. Its 11 members hail from Texas, Mexico, and Nicaragua. They play gigs every Thursday at Prince’s exclusive club 3121 in Las Vegas.

I didn’t know this and hadn’t heard that Grupo had been dubbed one of the top Austin bands by local papers, or that they had just released their third CD, Grupo Fantasma Comes Alive. I went because the concert was free. It turned out to be the best live show I’ve ever seen. Inside the local PBS studio, I glanced at poster-size photos of Austin City Limits legends including Willie Nelson and Ray Charles and walked by a table of free beer. Yes, free beer — Budweiser is one of the major underwriters for Austin City Limits.

I zigzagged in through clusters of yuppies, hippies, and families to find one of the few remaining seats. I settled in and scanned the crowd — roughly 300 Austinites gathered for what a woman in line promised would be “phenomenal.” The stage in the center was raised and filled with a maze of cords and nearly a dozen instruments. Behind the stage, fake trees anchored a massive black backdrop with tiny lights and a faux Austin skyline that created the feeling of an outdoor concert. Two gigantic grey cameras were poised, close to the stage, ready to capture the music for TV audiences.

After a brief intro from Terry Lickona, the curly-haired director from KLRU-TV (Austin's PBS affiliate), Grupo Fantasma took the stage. One band member, Sweet Lou (Matthew Holmes) began pumping out the beat from four large congas. Moments later, he was joined by the entire band.

With drums, horns, electric guitars, and various percussion instruments I’d never seen before, the band delivered a set of songs that was fast-paced and well executed. Fiery and energetic, lead vocalist Jose Galeano encouraged the crowd to dance and shake their hips. Audience members filled the center of the studio, beers in hand, dancing to the explosive rhythms. Each band member had a chance to shine, not only in the band introductions but also throughout the evening in various solos and jams.

“They fuse afro-latin funk, cumbia, hip-hop, salsa, merengue and more into an intoxicating whole,” according to Grupo Fantasma’s website. The band played songs with varying beats, multi-layered instrumentation, and dynamic melodies. Clearly not another cheesy Tejano band, or even a Latin rock group, the band dexterously defies the norm and becomes nearly impossible to categorize.

The audience erupted in cheers when the band played “Chocolate,” which urges listeners to resists the temptations of el Diablo, the devil. My favorite songs were “Saca La Basura” (Take Out the Trash) and “Peligrosa” (Dangerous). These everyday themes contrast with the more socially radical messages of another cross-genre Latin group, Ozomatli.

Though most songs were in Spanish, the powerful beats made the concert riveting — even for my British friends who confessed afterwards that their only Spanish phrase is “Can I have a beer?” By the end of the set, the band was sweaty and appeared exhausted but encore cries from the audience brought them out for another three songs!

At the show, I learned from the couple beside me that Austin City Limits will be moving from its current home in the UT Communications Building to the ground floor of a swanky new W Hotel soon to be built in downtown Austin. Though there will be 2000 seats instead of 300, the hotel promises to retain the “feel” of the current locale, giving more people an opportunity to experience Austin City Limits. Hopefully, there will be room for dancing.

Grupo Fantasma was muy fantástico, energético y lleno de pasión para su música. I’d give their concert four stars. Tune in to the Alma Awards Tuesday on ABC to hear them open for Prince.

(Publicity photo of Grupo Fantasma from the group's website. The group is distributed by the Aire Sol Records.)

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Rick Rockwell said...

To see Grupo Fantasma backing Prince and Sheila E. at the Alma Awards, please check here.

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