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Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are cruising in vintage style

April 13, 2009 |  1:02 pm


Twenty years ago, when Los Fabulosos Cadillacs made their L.A. debut at the Latin Rock Festival at the Sports Arena, “they were greeted by flying beer and nachos thrown by hard-core Mexican fans who were there to hear legendary blues band El Tri,” according to an L.A. Times account.

Last Friday, at the Gibson Amphitheatre, the Argentine ska-punk-reggae-rockers received a very different reception from a sold-out crowd, most of whose members appeared far too young to remember the Cadillacs’ tumultuous 1989 appearance.

Pogoing, moshing and singing along vehemently with practically every verse, the audience paid exuberant homage to a band that has survived through numerous personnel shifts; creative upheavals; a seven-year hiatus while founding members Vicentico (lead vocalist Gabriel Fernandez Capello) and Senor Flavio (bassist Flavio Cianciarulo) pursued solo projects; and a recent tragedy, the sudden death of percussionist Gerardo Rotblat, of pulmonary edema, at 38.

Performing at the Gibson, this now middle-aged ensemble showed that they have attained a new level of artistic maturity. A touch of gray and a few extra kilos become them. Always urgent (and occasionally frenzied) in their delivery, the Cadillacs now have added a welcome solidity to their collective persona.

Which doesn't mean they don't still know how to throw a musical bacchanal. Unleashing a kinetic, two-hour-plus set comprising monster Cono Sur hits ("Malbicho"), less-familiar tunes and a few oddities (a cover of Ian Dury's "Wake Up and Make Love With Me"), the Cadillacs demonstrated why they’re one of the the most influential and innovative of all Latin bands, able to incorporate myriad influences (Tex-Mex, funk, disco, tropical, hip-hop) in a way that feels utterly organic and unforced.

Like other British ska, reggae and punk vinyl heroes of the late '70s and early '80s, including UB40, the Specials and their idols, the Clash, the Cadillacs in their early years put bad boy/rude boy attitude over musical aptitude.

By contrast, the current lineup is as technically polished an outfit as any porkpie-hat wearing, Mexican bandera-waving fan could wish. Unlike many neo-ska bands that graft on a horn section as an ornamental afterthought, the Cadillacs’ instrumentalists, led by Einstein-haired saxophonist Sergio Rotman, supply the beating heart of the group's sound.

The Cadillacs' essence combines raucous enthusiasm with plaintive yearning, mainly expressed through Vicentico's torchy crooning. On Friday, the singer evoked a Palermo tango singer with his passionate renditions of tunes like “Padre Nuestro” (Our Father), with its haunting refrain, “I want to see the dawn.”

With twin video projections of the moon rising on screens on both sides of him, he stretched his voice to the edge of melodrama on “Siguiendo la luna,”  berating a putatitve lover: “You should end up in prison . . . /That you have lied to me/That you have have tricked this heart.” Twirling a cane, puffing a harmonica and lurching around the stage with spastic grace, he supplies the gravitas, the emotional counterweight, to the relentlessly up-tempo, bop-skipping Senor Flavio, who at one point trained his instrument on the crowd like a rifle.

Born out of the massive cultural and sexual eruption that accompanied the end of Argentina's dictatorship, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs often have conflated the personal with the political, and they've perfected that feel-good, feel-bad formula with any number of groovin' tracks. "Los Condenaditos" (The Condemned) starts off with a martial drum roll on the band's new release, "La Luz del Ritmo." But in concert, the funereal New Orleans-style theatrics were quickly usurped by a carnival spirit, notably on the new disc's title track, which translates as "The Light of Rhythm."

The crowd, which hadn't sat down for a single minute, roared its approval as the Cadillacs reappeared for two encores, during one of which Cianciarulo's young son sat in on drums. As his padre well knows, youth is fleeting. But as they demonstrated on Friday, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, nearly a quarter-century on, still have youthful energy to burn.

-- Reed Johnson