Madison Square Garden
Saturday, February 11
Better than: Coming home and hearing about Whitney.
I lived in the Bronx during the 23 weeks when Aventura’s The Last reigned over the Billboard Latin chart, and the local quartet’s music was everywhere. From all-night dance clubs to family reunions at Crotona Park, corner bodegas to Orchard Beach, there were few places you could go to escape it. Of course, why would you have wanted to when any of the album’s 16 tracks (the two skits don’t count), plus the inevitable throwbacks like “Obsesion” and “Hermanita,” could start a party as quickly as they could turn around a floundering one?
This feeling—a precise mixture of community, guitars, and bongos, topped off with a dash of melancholy—was in the air again Saturday night, when the band’s former frontman, the supremely confident and devilishly handsome Romeo Santos, came to Madison Square Garden for the first of three shows in support of last year’s Formula Vol. 1. “New York City!” Santos shouted at some point during the medley (“You” to “La Diabla” to “Maleva” to “Por un Segundo”) that opened his set, “I’m home! And there are so many people in my house!”
But Romeo wasn’t just thanking his fans or giving his city of birth its obligatory salute; he was also bragging. Over the last few years, beginning with the September 2007 performance recorded on the eight-times-platinum Kings of Bachata: Sold Out at Madison Square Garden and culminating with the four-night stand that opened 2010, the singer has likely spent more time in the arena than some Knicks. And when he opened the show by descending from the rafters on a dazzling gold cathedra, the message was clear: Watch the throne.
As a survey of his kingdom, Romeo’s set was nearly flawless. Formula‘s highlights all appeared: In that opening medley, “You” set the pace while the Perdis that center “La Diabla” soared particularly high over both the strings and rhythms. Then again,he now had a chorus of 20,000 offering their best attempt at background vocals. Later, “Debate De 4” provided the musical accompaniment for a “test of charisma” between three men pulled from the audience, and the chart house-influnced “Magia Negra” marked the singer’s return from a mid-set intermission.
But this being a Romeo Santos at Madison Square Garden, that intermission was less a time to catch your breath then to lose it, as Prince Royce, the Bronx’s next big bachatero, came on stage first to sing the hook on “Dile Al Amor,” one of the most popular cuts from Aventura’s aforementioned valedictary album, then returned to perform “Corazon Sin Cara” and his cover of “Stand by Me,” the two most popular songs off his eponymous debut.
Following “Magia Negra,” Romeo sang Formula‘s “Soberbio” over a projected red carpet, then returned to Aventura’s catalog for the majority of his final 45 or so minutes onstage. At one point, he strapped himself to a platform that transported him to the rear of the stadium, then made it back just in time to run around and let a few air humps loose before “Obsesion” came to a close. At another, he sat on a grand piano, drinking wine and singing old slow jams. Soon after, he took requests from the crowd, then brought a woman onstage and subjected her the harshest onstage lap dance I’ve seen since Chris Brown repeatedly drove his pelvis in a seated fan at this year’s Summer Jam.
It was an impressive performance, as exhausting as it was comprehensive, with rarely a dull moment. And yet, even after Romeo left the stage to Aventura’s “Un Beso,” the crowd wanted more. Could you ask for a better finale than that song’s rumba conclusion? Apparently yes, and soon 20,000 people were repeating the name of the man who sings the hook on Formula‘s lead single: Usher! Usher!
Ask and ye shall receive. For an encore, Romeo returned singing his “Promise” opening verse, and just in time for the English hook, Usher appeared above the 20-person assemblage of guitarists, singers, and drummers that had provided the singer with unerring accompaniment throughout the night, gliding down and across the stage as the crowd screams reached new decibels. Romeo, meanwhile, remained in the center of the stage, singing his verses while Madison Square Garden sang them back. Once again he had raised our expectations, and once again he had exceeded them.
Critical bias: I don’t speak Spanish, so I had a friend translate most of the banter for me. And fortunately, the show was loud enough that I could sing the syllables without anyone (except maybe my friend) realizing that my words were pure gibberish.
Random notebook dump: Usher casually walks down a flight of stairs in a way that is smoother, cooler, and sexier than anything I will ever do in my entire life.