Fusion Regime

"This one's for all the beautiful young ladies with big tits," declared the frontman of Panamanian ska-mongers Rabanes of a ditty titled "Señorita a Mí Me Gusta Su Style." The female revelers at Hammerstein Ballroom wailed in excitement—even the small-breasted ones—at the trio's Spanglish odes to sexy mamis. Their festive anthems last Wednesday rode an energetic mix of merengue, mariachi, punk, and techno at the third annual Latin rocanrol showcase-turned-cause that is the Watcha tour.

The hearty sancocho of fusions became extra playful with Argentine collective Bersuit. The eight members blended ska, salsa, banda beats, loungeadelic grooves, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink into a contagious musical daze. Yet, on stage, the aging pibes resembled cult members rather then tequila-fueled gauchos: Uniformed in jogging suits, they stumbled around with flailing arms—perhaps warning that the end was near. If that's the case, they couldn't care less. They're more interested in self-pleasure, dedicating "Culona" to those who masturbate with electrical appliances.

Arms and the Man: Juanes at Watcha
photo: Cary Conover
Arms and the Man: Juanes at Watcha

Somewhere in this five-hour marathon, Dover (from Spain) ran through songs that sounded too similar to each other, maybe due to the Hammerstein's weak acoustics—sadly, we couldn't discern what the only female vocalists on the bill had to say. It would've been enough for ethereal Chilean-pop papis La Ley just to look pretty, but the strapping Beto Cuevas sang his floating lyrics effortlessly, a seamless performance worthy of a Pepsi commercial. Enanitos Verdes brought a whiff of the '80s to the party, while rap-metal regulars Molotov discharged their hardcore stampede onto the awaiting mosh pit.

Intense yet approachable, Juanes, with his quietly despairing voice and live-life-to-the-fullest tales, left the deepest impression. With urgency he told of troubles at home in Colombia, a dead friend, and that fine line between love and hurt. His last song, "Fíjate Bien," with its gorgeous melodies and catchy hooks mixed with vallenato music, proved—for at least that moment—that Latin rock could do no wrong. —Grace Bastidas

Eyes on the Prize

"You ever live in a haunted house before?" Spearhead's Michael Franti asked early in their Wetlands show on August 14, the last the politically minded funkateers will play in the venue before it's converted into office space. "With ghosts telling you to pack up and take your shit with you? Well, we're gonna leave some spirits here tonight." They certainly took their time doing it. Though there was little in the way of extended improvisation, San Francisco's Spearhead are in many ways a classic jam band; their groove grew looser as the show progressed, stretching out to two-hours-plus.

Around the release of their 1997 murk-funk opus, Chocolate Supa Highway, Franti (formerly of the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) thoroughly dominated Spearhead's live show. But now that he's officially credited ahead of the group on the new Stay Human, Franti seems content to bask in his surroundings. Even when pulling a female fan onstage to salsa dance or starting a pair of numbers alone with an acoustic guitar, he was first among equals.

Seeing the band live meant not having to race for the fast-forward button during Stay Human's ponderous anti-death-penalty skits; activist Mario Africa's band-introduction-cum-Mumia-rally-recruitment was both more concrete and more engaging. As you might expect from the rabble-rousing atmosphere, Franti's spoken-word piece got cheers about every stanza or so; "Pulitzer! Pulitzer! Pulitzer!" shouted one fan. Um, not quite. But when Franti dropped the chorus of the Heroes' "Television, the Drug of the Nation" into the whomping new "Rock the Nation," he demonstrated how much warmer and more effective his work has become. A decade on from the Heroes' dry didacticism, he's incorporating politics into his songcraft as well as any of his protest-soul idols. —Michaelangelo Matos

Underage Against the Machine

"First, I gotta talk to y'all. Can I talk to y'all for a minute?" asks the brassy, sassy Miss Alicia Keys, supastar-in-waiting if you let J Records tell it. At Roseland on August 17, the crowd talks back. "Somebody's feisty tonight," Keys remarks, as she bops her head over her keyboard (didyouknowsheplays?). At her first date opening for Maxwell's NY7 tour—seven New York venues in about as many days—Clive Davis's newest "diva" gets to the work of claiming the throne laid before her, the onus as strong as the hype. Keys is under 21 with street edge, easy on the eyes, and does have a voice—essential raw material for her record company's million-dollar marketing machine.

As much a fashionista as a singer, Keys sashayed across the stage, acid-washed duster covering her body-too-bootylicious thighs, her cocked fedora over her trademark braids 'n' beads. Off came the hat as she launched into "Fallin'," the breakout single that's been sitting pretty on top of the charts for weeks. The coat stayed on, however ("You gotta leave something to the imagination"), as Keys and her onstage accomplice, complete with orange jail suit, rocked out over a Michael Jackson riff. Keys's show, like her album, was tasty if a bit red on the inside; at Roseland, she didn't quite develop a command of the crowd or find an exciting stride. Although Keys is hip-hop without being sample- heavy—but really, though, doesn't "Fallin' " sound a lot like "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"?—she eventually needs to find a comfortable pace between her hip-hop tendencies and her company's pop aspirations. From the cover of Prince's "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore" to "Girlfriend" or her encore "Butterflyz," Keys proved she's on the ascending side of the learning curve.

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