Grupo Fantasma Melts Austin City Limits

Latin hornographers’ second PBS taping pulls out all the stops

Neither floor, mezzanine, nor the balcony were full when Grupo Fantasma started taping its second Austin City Limits episode in a decade Tuesday night. ACL Live at the Moody Theater routinely crams indie rock acts with tenfold buzz into its PBS-loving arena. In the 75th minute, Austin’s Latino earthquake put them all to shame.

Photo by Scott Newton/Courtesy of KLRU-TV

Photo by Scott Newton Courtesy of KLRU-TV

Thirty minutes later, after the stamp and clap command of “otra, otra, otra” had been fulfilled by the local Laredo natives, the bleachers finally stopped shaking and the temperature inside began to creep back down. Capping an expansive main set with more looks than Broadway, Prince cover “Controversy” nearly shook down the temple walls. Its all-hands-on-deck churn and burn tallied 19 musicians onstage.

The core ninepiece counted 10 when opening with Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” its bass and backline thrust met by the horn section’s high notes in place of Robert Plant’s wordless wail. Bombastic where Grupo excels at an agility reminiscent of jazz’s golden big-band era, the classic rocker’s corrective followed via “Nada” from last year’s career high comeback Problemas, a quartet of percussionists pitching battle with five horns. Special guests then kicked off their show-long parade.

Abdicated Grupo founder Adrian Quesada and free-roaming accompanist Josh Baca added another ax and accordion, respectively, to a fast-warming engine, quasar guitar pulsing atop a percussive onslaught held in check by dual frontmen Jose Galeano and Kino Esparza. The pair’s Spanish-language boom sounds like its emanating from a ride rumbling down Cesar Chavez after a pachanga. Music for the masses, the brown masses, a cantina mezcla of Texan, Mexican, and Afro-Caribbean beats and bleats crossing over to Anglo Austin.

“Otoño” (Fall) whipped up a white-hot cumbia matched only the ensuing “Descarga Pura y Dura,” a syncopated salsa counting five horns, guitarist Beto Martinez’s chiming riff, and cowbell. New Orleans’ answer to late, great Lubbock sax savage Bobby Keys, recent Rolling Stones horn addition Karl Denson added flute to a veritable brass mosh next on “Solo un Sueño,” stair-stepping melody via its air brigade. Forty-five minutes had only begun to thaw Grupo Fantasma.

Satellite moon Brownout slimmed down to nine players led by Quesada for a trio of numbers, leadoff “Aguilas & Cobras” swooping and snatching like a speed version of Dizzy Gillespie’s bop standard “Salt Peanuts.” Their melting jams were then encored by Mariachi Estrella swelling the stage by five to recreate lush Beatles brilliance from Problemas, “Porque” (Abbey Road’s “Because”). As Galeano and Esparza weaved and climbed vocally, album producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos added organ, Denson blew fiercely, and Mariachi Estrella’s fiddle and chorus of gut-stringed guitars all paid tribute to the song’s late production genie, George Martin.

“Roto el Corazón” (Broken Heart) breached at the aforementioned 75th minute with Josh Levy’s baritone sax blaring like a 18-wheeler, while the following “Problemas” broadcast Miami beach all the way to Havana – every riff a can opener, all cowbell blasts an exclamation, and the horn surges set to three-alarm. Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs once taunted “El Matador” to such heights only they needed punk to do it. Standing ovation secured!

Prince once sought out Grupo Fantasma to back him. Perhaps that sums up their 16-year history in a sentence.

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Grupo Fantasma, Austin City Limits, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Los Lobos, Steve Berlin, Max Baca, Adrian Quesada, Beto Martinez, Karl Denson, Rolling Stones, Bobby Keys, Beatles, George Martin, Mariachi Estrella, Dizzy Gillespie, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

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