Live review: Ruben Blades

Well, not so much a review as a collection of thoughts…

I’m on a 148 bus (hooray for smartphones! But on what planet do people say “hooray” when they really wanted to say “bootstraps”?), going home after a brilliant gig I went to mostly out of curiosity.

Ruben Blades has just come off the stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (I know it’s not called that any more, but I refuse to give free plugs to mobile phone companies), after treating a packed house to two and a half hours of sheer delight.  Salsa fan that I am, I’ve kind of always been aware of Ruben’s existence, but not as familiar with his work compared to that of other salseros. So when I heard he was going to have a gig in London, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to acquaint myself.

Well, even though I didn’t know much of his material before, I thoroughly enjoyed the gig. And in his band was someone I was familiar with: the ace trombonist and salsa dura maestro Jimmy Bosch, who did a few awesome solos and a great ‘duelling horns’ battle with one of the trumpeters. In addition to his own songs, Ruben covered hits by Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and Jose Feliciano, throwing in the ‘Thriller’ intro before going into ‘Mack the Knife’ (the only English song of the evening). He paid tribute to Facundo Cabral (the legendary Argentinean songwriter, who was murdered in Guatemala earlier this month); to Colombian salsa star Joe Arroyo (who’d died just a day or two earlier) and to Amy Winehouse. Later on, he talked about the mass murder in Norway as an introduction to an anti-racism song.

The older I get, the more I appreciative I am of people who love full lives – and I found Ruben’s life story (or at least the little of it he shared with us) quite inspiring. Neither of his parents made it further than the sixth grade (someone has to explain to me what the British equivalent of that is), but “we were never poor, because poverty is something up here.” He went to university in his native Panama, but left the country before his graduation – and is proud of the fact that he never served as a lawyer “under a dictatorship.” Most inspiring of all (to me, anyway) was the fact that he’s getting ready to head back to college, to do a doctorate!

I learned a few other things as the gig progressed. I learned that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (whose Love in the Time of Cholera is sitting in my office, waiting to be read) is a musician as well as an award-winning author. Ruben told us about their friendship, then played us a song they’d written together. I learned that the volume at salsa gigs goes up gradually – and if you haven’t got earplugs in at the start, you’ll certainly need them by the end (but then that could just be the Empire’s acoustics). But above all, I was reminded that you’re as young as you feel, and you’re never too old to learn something new.

Yep – I had a great time tonight. I want Ruben’s leather jacket. And his trilby hat. And to look that good (and move that well) when I’m 63…

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