This post is also available in: Español
Ruben Blades celebrated his “50 Years” in music with a concert at the Coliseum of Puerto Rico which I consider one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen by any artist.
In a nutshell, Ruben still has a great voice, his stories added palpable color to the songs, and Roberto Delgado’s big band and sound were of recording studio quality. They played 28 songs in almost 4 hours on stage to summarize an amazing 50-year career.
Let me say that it doesn’t get much better than this! Here’re the details.
Four Hours of Music and Stories
I’ve always argued that artists should make live shows a better experience for the audience than simply watching an artist perform the songs of an album. Unfortunately that’s the norm. I first experienced concerts with songs and stories when Angel “Cachete” Maldonado provided some explanations of Songo and other rhythms in between Batacumbele songs. I’ve also seen Eddie Palmieri share anecdotes regarding some of his songs.
Ruben Blades, celebrating his 50 years in music, did it better than anyone I’ve seen! Besides providing us a great musical summary of his career, Ruben complemented the songs with stories attached to each one. These stories gave us a behind-the-scenes look at either the idea behind the songs or the events that led to them. This enriched the concert experience in a way that no recording can do. You don’t get this in your typical concert, no matter the artist.
In order for Panamanian Ruben Blades to summarize his career, he used the backing of Roberto Delgado’s big band from Panama. I’ll get to some more details about Roberto Delgado’s band below.
The performance by the singer-songwriter, actor, lawyer and ex-Minister of Tourism of Panama was outstanding. It’s amazing how well he keeps his voice in his 70’s. For the most part he sounded just like in the original records. Only on very few occasions you might catch a rare crack in the voice. But Ruben wasn’t afraid or reaching for high notes. He clearly takes good care of his vocal cords.
Ruben only had one guest artist for this concert. Back when he did the concert celebrating the 25 years with Seis del Solar, he had Cheo Feliciano as guest. For this one, he brought the Puerto Rican trumpeter and arranger extraordinaire Luis “Perico” Ortiz. I was going to insert a photo of both of them on-stage, but why do that when I can share a video clip of Perico’s trumpet solo in “Paula C”?
Since I’m a big fan of Ruben Blades, I knew most songs and stories. But there were stories I’ve never heard before. And again, in this lies part of the great value of attending this live show. After 3 or 4 songs, I switched from starting to record video clips at that beginning of a song to right after a song ended. This way, I captured stories that now are part of Latin music history.
But as he said at one point in the middle of one of his stories…”…and pardon my talking, but don’t think that because I’m talking I won’t play; I’m going to talk AND play”, for which he got a big applause. I was one of many thinking, ‘hey talk all you want; I’m enjoying this’.
In the below video I captured what might be my favorite story and song of the night. In this one, Ruben tells how he met both, songwriter Tite Curet Alonso and star singer Cheo Feliciano, both of whom became great friends of his. Don’t miss how the emotion almost chokes him at the end of the Cheo Feliciano story as he remembers his late friend. He also tells the story of how it felt the first time he was on stage with Willie Colon, when the people were expecting Hector Lavoe, not him. This served as prelude to “Plantación Adentro”, written by Tite Curet and included in his 1st album with Willie Colon.
This clip is a good sample of how the concert went. Ruben tells great stories, showed his quick humor, and had a great song performance and band sound. Especially take note of the 2nd mambo. Wow! Ruben signals Roberto, who then signals the band to come in the mambo. Oh my! Even Ruben seems to anchor himself while playing the maracas so not to be blown off the stage by the band.
And one more thing. Those loud mouths you hear in the background are my wife and I singing the chorus (sorry about that!). My wife sings well, but I’m the one that sounds like sheep. You can tell we’re really into this concert.
Superb Sound at Ruben Blades 50 Years Concert
Ok, so far I’ve covered my take on the 28 songs, 25 of which were Salsa hits with their corresponding story. BTW, the other 3 songs were an instrumental jazz song performed by the band (“Mambo Gil”), and two jazz songs which Ruben sang in English.
The other thing that made this concert so good was the sound! It was amazing!
Roberto Delgado’s 20-piece big band is so good, that some songs sounded better in the concert than either in the original recording or when they originally played them live. For example, the songs Ruben recorded with Willie Colon, like “Pablo Pueblo”, “La Mora”, “Plantacion Adentro” and “Pedro Navaja”, sounded better with Roberto Delgado’s big band than with Willie Colon live. And that is saying a lot, as Willie Colon had one of the best bands in Salsa; almost a Fania All Stars lineup. But don’t take my word for it. Search YouTube for a better sounding clip of “Plantación Adentro” than the one you just saw above!
At one point Ruben said he needed to introduce the band.
“As you know I had a band of six before (in reference to “Seis del Solar”); now I have a small republic back there. I have Bolivia back there.”, jokingly referring to the 20 musicians in Roberto Delgado’s big band.
With the regular rhythm section of piano, keyboard, and bass (Roberto Delgado is the leader and bassist), percussion section (conga, bongo, and timbales) reinforced with trap drums, and complemented by a wind section that could almost blow the Choliseo roof off, something Hurricane Maria couldn’t do. It consisted of a baritone sax, 3 trombones, 2 trumpets, and plenty of alto and tenor saxophones.
This small battalion played incredibly well! They were obviously well-rehearsed. More than one time it raised the skin and hairs in my arms (since I don’t have much left in my head).
There were two sound mastering tables; one straight back in the ground floor, directly opposite the stage, and the other to the left of the band on the stage. They combined to make Ruben Blades and the band sound as if they were in a giant recording studio. The cherry on top was the big screen behind the stage, which played clips and photos of Ruben, Hector Lavoe and even caricatures of some songs, like in “Decisiones”.
Don’t Miss Ruben Blades 50 Years
If you have a chance to see Ruben Blades “50 Years” Concert, I highly recommend you go. This concert turned out to be much better than what I expected.
Besides, this might be one of the last opportunities to see Ruben this good, for several reasons.
He’s in his 70’s, and not getting any younger.
If you saw his latest documentary in HBO, “My Name is Not Ruben Blades”, he mentions that he doesn’t want to keep singing the same songs as he wants to move on to accomplish other projects. Among them he wants to write a book.
But as far as his voice and energy goes, there’s Ruben Blades left for a long time.
Below is the last song of the concert, sung acapella with the audience to close with a nice touch.