Longevity in pop music often is measured in weeks or months, not years or decades. So it was remarkable, and thrilling, to see Saturday's Reventon Super Estrella music festival practically be stolen by a group that's been around since the 1930s and that is proving itself to be more adaptive than the collective fauna of the Galapagos Islands.
Banda el Recodo, one of the oldest and best-known outfits from the northwest Mexican state of Sinaloa, was founded by the late Don Cruz Lizarraga and is now led with consummate professionalism and contagious enthusiasm by his sons. The ensemble isn't trendy. It turned up at Staples Center resplendent in traditional black outfits and cowboy boots, with clarinets, trumpets, trombones and drums in tow.
The group then proceeded to blow away the arena, packed with mostly under-30s, who joyfully danced and sang the words to every corrido, ranchera ballad or banda tune inflected with salsa, cumbia or even here and there a touch of hip-hop.
While so many emerging bands these days strenuously sample every conceivable musical flavor in attempting to sound au courant, Banda el Recodo makes songs with old-fangled titles and sensibilities such as "Dos Botellas de Mezcal" (Two Bottles of Mezcal) and "Linda y Traicionera" (Beautiful and Traitorous) sound as if they were written for tonight's despondent cantina-crawl or tomorrow's lovesick morning-after reflections. Its crack musicianship and proudly nationalistic flavor play equally well on either side of the border. I'd hitchhike to Culiacán to hear these guys.
Reventon is the savvy invention of Spanish-language pop radio station Super Estrella (107.1 FM), which broadcasts throughout Southern California. In the dozen years of its existence, the roughly six-hour festival has become a fascinating if at times erratic freeze-frame of the current state of Spanish-language pop, offering a prime showcase for nine or 10 bands to promote their latest records in sets that generally last from 15 to 35 minutes.
Saturday's lineup followed the festival's customary pattern of mixing established pop pros like Paulina Rubio; dulcet-throated crooners such as the Puerto Rican Luis Fonsi; a teeny-bopper heartthrob, this year the appealing Mexican singer Pee Wee; and progressive rock en espanol bands such as Mexico's excellent Zoe, who played a thoughtful, neo-psychedelic set concluding with the Beatles-esque "Love." Also on hand was the Puerto Rican reggaeton duo Wisin y Yandel, who closed out the evening with a spanking-good performance of "Rakata" and other signature tunes.
Wisin and Yandel are enjoying the kind of success that occasionally befalls smart, hard-working musicians who've been paying their dues for years. Accompanied at Staples by a laid-back, grooving band plus four writhing male dancers in plaid shirts and jeans and four females making like robotic cheerleaders, the duo bantered with each other between numbers and did their best to ingratiate the predominantly Mexican crowd by literally wrapping themselves in the Mexican flag.
Although several of their songs tend toward standard-issue reggaeton boasts of sexual conquest and other superhero-like feats, the personable Wisin and Yandel temper their image with winking humor and sly intelligence.
The same can't quite be said of the Panamanian reggaeton artist Flex, although he has wisely distanced himself lately from his other, poorly chosen stage name. Flex hit the Staples stage in a New York Yankees cap and shades, which he quickly doffed. His tough B-Boy persona fell by the wayside too as the performer best known for his mega-hit "Te Quiero" demonstrated with his sweet, plaintive voice that he's really a romantic softy at heart.
The strangest set of the night, by far, was Rubio's. It was prefigured by several minutes of ominous backstage rumbling and false starts. Once they finally emerged, the singer and her white-suited band belted out a slickly polished set opening with "Causa y Efecto" (Cause and Effect) from her new album. At the end, Rubio practically ran off the stage shouting a terse, "Gracias, buenas noches!" -- before returning for an encore for which the confused crowd hadn't exactly been clamoring. What was up with that?
Never mind. The Mexican band Camila delivered a pleasingly melodious set that would've fit well into a '70s soft-rock radio format. Fonsi's voice somehow soared above his band's keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars and two full drum kits as if he were determined to ruffle the retired Lakers jerseys hanging from the rafters.
So did that of lead singer Natalia Jimenez, who forms with guitarist Angel Reyero the Madrid duo known as La 5a Estacion (the 5th Season) and needs to find better material to go with her impressive pipes.