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Rubén Blades at the Oakland Paramount Theater

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Rubén Blades
Paramount Theater
Oakland, CA
November 20, 2021

The November night was brisk, and the expectant crowd gradually swelled. Sausage vendors were selling onion-and pepper-laden sandwiches right alongside the scalpers. The queues were long—for checking vaccine cards and gaining entry or even just to partake of a juicy pre-show sausage. Excitement was in the air. The 3,000-plus-seater Oakland Paramount Theater soon filled.

Rubén Blades' 21-piece Panamanian band—courteously waiting for the arriving crowd to be seated—began nearly 20 minutes late, with Mr. Blades taking the stage soon after. Attired totally in black with his signature porkpie hat canted atop his head, the Panamanian superstar was ever his fanciable self—even at the ripening age of 73. In addition to being one of salsa's and Latin jazz's most renowned singers, he is also a multi-Grammy award-winning composer, penetrating and reflective songwriter, actor, activist, politician, and Harvard Law School graduate, who once ran for Panama's presidency.

Blades opened the show by announcing it would mostly be in Spanish but that there would be a "swing" portion of the show in English—given that those selections would all be American standards.

As with any sizeable Latin ensemble, Blades' drum section had congas, timbales, and bongos. But on this night, the rhythm section was augmented by a traps drummer, a second keyboard player who doubled—tripled, actually—on guiro and chékère, and a bassist. Blades even grooved on the maracas for a few tunes. The horn section was an impressive array of five saxophones (and flute), four trombones, and five trumpets. The total effect was powerful, with plentiful boogying going on in the front and the aisles.

Enhancing it all was an impressive light show with a movie theater big-screen behind the musicians. The ever-changing colored light shafts were laser-like to spotlight a soloist or to brighten the stage. At times the lights were Hollywood searchlight beams flashing upon the audience. The screen often depicted what was occurring during the song, telling its story.

The performance lasted a non-stop two-and-a-half hours. One of Blades' instantly recognizable tunes was "Todos Vuelven" (Everyone Comes Back), during which the screen continuously displayed images of Latin music's greats and some actors who had passed. Another was "El Cantante" (The Singer)—made famous by salsa legend Héctor Lavoe. The aforementioned swing section contained only a few tunes but featured the standards, "Pennies from Heaven" and "The Way You Look Tonight." The finale was Blades' mega-hit "Pedro Navaja," which is the lengthy and touchingly sad saga of the principal character, who, having wielded a knife in a brawl, dies in the street by a gunshot wound. Despite that heavy theme, the audience filed out in spirited satisfaction. In toto, Blades' masterful music provided for a lively evening of dance and song.

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