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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Feliciano still a salsa master

March 10, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

As far as living salsa legends go, few singers enjoy the level of respect that Cheo Feliciano commands among tropical music aficionados. The 67-year-old veteran might lack the explosive pizazz of an Oscar D'Leon or the manic urgency of a Joe Arroyo, but his assured, smooth style exemplifies the effortless swing of traditional Puerto Rican salsa at its velvety best.

True to his old-fashioned approach, Feliciano incorporated a touch of Vegas campiness in his much-awaited Los Angeles appearance Friday at the Conga Room. Alternating the more upbeat material with plenty of torrid boleros, he peppered the slow tunes with delicious lounge overtones while gazing invitingly at the adoring ladies in the audience. The musty old favorite "Juguete" sounded like a cross between contemporary Latin ballad and vintage Burt Bacharach.

Feliciano's performance could have easily disappointed. Not only has the man's voice lost some of the chocolaty luster of his youth, but he was also missing most of his regular Puerto Rican orchestra. Instead, he was joined by the Los Angeles-based combo of bassist Oscar Cartaya.

The combination of local group and out-of-town salsero usually results in hesitant musicianship. But Cartaya passed the test with flying colors, aided by a flawless five-piece brass section that added vibrant emotional color to the charts at hand.

Clearly aware of the singer's distinguished pedigree, the band shone during a '60s pachanga medley from Feliciano's days with the legendary Joe Cuba Sextet, then proceeded to re-create the Fania All-Stars salsa heyday of the '70s with "Anacaona," a raucous jam that found the ever good-humored Feliciano celebrating with wild abandon.

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