Wednesday, 26 June 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: Buena Vista Social Club

What starts as a delicious piece of Cuban cuisine ends up as Pink Martini lite

The timing of Buena Vista Social Club's first appearance in Derry-Londonderry, the Venue to be exact, is rather unfortunate. Aesthetically, it looks very pleasing before it's even begun, with the brass instruments, drums, bongos, guitars, percussion instruments, double bass and grand piano bathed in multicoloured, even multicultural, lighting. There's little doubt that true fans will be overjoyed. But - and this is a big but - will this performance pack enough of a crowd-pleasing punch for the neutral, already exhausted by a day's worth of musical talent?

Early signs are good. Vocalist Idania Valdes, wearing a fetching green dress, tangos sweetly with the band leader as the guitars play on and the audience clap intensely. Almost no one on stage speaks English, but the catchy rhythms suggest that the language barrier might not be a problem. It's very easy music to groove to - I am both moving to and being moved by Valdes' surprisingly deep vocals and the band's synchronicity. "Shades of Pink Martini at the Millennium Forum", I whisper to the lady standing beside me, and she agrees, smiling.

Little do I know that "shades of" is as good as it is going to get.

At first, it really is all very energetic and enjoyable. When remarkable leading lady Omara Portuondo enters the fray, prior to an explosion of prolonged drumming, relentless bongos and intertwining guitars, the locals are stunned and the foreign communities are swept off their feet into a state of ecstasy. Almost everyone near the front of the hall appears to be dancing, and the clapping continues when the trombone and double bass become exceptionally prominent.

But the band's magic formula is already beginning to show its seams.

While the quality of the sound is generally very good, not everyone on stage seems to know what they're doing. Valdes' seductive poses, so arresting at the beginning, fall a little flat amidst the loud instrumentals. A few catchy tunes, notably "Baila el Cha Cha Cha" and "Qui Sas, Qui Sas, Qui Sas (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)" lift spirits a little. Yet something is still lacking. There's a moment where Portuondo looks at the audience and points to her ears as if to say, "Why aren't you singing?" Probably because repetition has kicked in.

You sense that, at least while Portuondo's on stage, there's a tongue-in-cheek side to the performance longing to bubble to the surface, but this is submerged by the band's all-too-well mannered, even safe, nature. All too often, this results in a curious detachment; many momentous melodies, minus magic and mystery.

Credit Buena Vista Social Club, at least, for their consistently professional and energetic musicianship. And there are still a few high points to come, like (in my opinion) the Cuban Paddy Nash, Eliades Ochoa. It's kind of amusing, and welcomely surreal, to hear everyone else's ultra cool, whispery vocals while he plays away in the centre of the stage.

Moments like this, however, are a rarity. The appearance of a clown near the end - a man with a coloured handkerchief and white top - reeks of desperation alongside music that has become too indistinguishable for my liking. Yes, the Venue floor is rumbling a little with the sound of dancing couples, but when compared to the slick cinematic storytelling of Pink Martini, this is markedly inferior.

A stronger repartee and more varied repertoire to go with the drive and mildly likeable, if repetitive, tunes would have raised this reviewer's opinion of the concert no end. On the other hand, it appears to have given the people both inside and outside the Venue a real buzz, so that can't be all bad, can it?