Without its former stars Andy Montaez or Roberto Roena, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is not the same. But this edition of a band formed 35 years ago is still good enough to convincingly headline a show that includes Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Eddie Palmieri.
El Gran Combo still has three dynamite frontmen in Charlie Aponte, Jerry Rivas and Papo Rosario, as it showed Saturday at the third Hollywood Salsa & Latin Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
Classics such as "La salsa de hoy" ("The Salsa of Today") and "Brujeria" ("Witchcraft") sounded as powerful as they did in the '70s.
Long before those songs were played, however, Albita delivered the night's most memorable music. With a new look (blond, barefoot and wearing black) and a stage presence that was equal parts salsera and rock star, she sang only five songs, but her short set was enough to confirm that she is what's happening in Latin music today. Why she played so early, when the seats weren't even warm, is anyone's guess. She deserves star treatment.
Cruz, who struggled as the headliner last year, was much sharper this time around, ending her set with a memorable version of the classic "Mi Bemba Colorada" ("My Red Mouth"), during which she showed that she still matters as an artist even if her voice isn't what it was a few years ago.
Midway through the show, the usual virtuosity of the Tropi-Jazz All-Stars, featuring Puente and Palmieri, was the link that united both parts of perhaps the strongest edition of a festival that this year included an out-of-place set by rapper El General. The rapper was surprisingly entertaining, but it would be nice if next year the Salsa & Latin Jazz Festival stuck to salsa and Latin jazz. Life is too short.