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El Chicano recaptures the magic at the Greek
On Sunday at the Greek Theatre, a reunited El Chicano showed that the band is worthy of renewed attention as one of the most accomplished exponents of the Eastside sound. Led by the white-haired Bobby Espinosa -- who was perched behind his beloved Hammond B-3 organ, draped for the occasion in a colorful Mexican serape -- El Chicano performed on the second of a two-night concert series called Latin Legends Live!, now in its seventh year at the Greek.
The weekend lineup included other warhorses of the Chicano nostalgia circuit, including headliners War and Tierra, along with Thee Midniters and Malo with Jorge Santana.
Tierra's lively party set featured brothers Rudy and Steve Salas, who once played with El Chicano and who had their own big reunion at the Conga Room in 2002. The band's outstanding current vocalist, Billy Mondragon, could have won the night's "Chicano Idol" competition for his soulfulness, power and pure falsettos.
Sunday's afternoon gloom might have slightly dampened the turnout. But the audience of mostly middle-aged Mexican Americans, many with the trademark goatees and tattoos of veteranos, filled the amphitheater with celebratory enthusiasm for the old-school music that served as a soundtrack for their youth.
The night offered a welcome reminder of how many excellent musicians emerged from the California Chicano community after the success of Carlos Santana and his trademark pop concoction, Latin rock. Unfortunately, nostalgia now fills a void because Chicano bands, with the exception of Los Lobos, have struggled to recapture the 1970s level of popularity.
While not strictly a Chicano band, War (Eric Burden's ex-backup group) fits the Santana mold with its multicultural makeup and its fusion of rock, R&B, salsa and jazz, exemplified by its 1975 Top 10 hit "Low Rider."
El Chicano's "Viva Tirado" was one of those pop music flukes, a jazzy instrumental written by pianist Gerald Wilson, an African American who happened to love bullfighting. El Chicano's 1970 cover version became a Top 40 hit, though it was recorded when the group was still known as the V.I.P.s, a moniker changed by a producer after signing a record deal. Overnight and unwittingly, the band was turned into a symbol for the tumultuous political movement that also called itself Chicano.
Espinosa has kept the group going with various lineups, but this is the first time in more than 20 years that almost all the early members were back on stage together. They include Freddie Sanchez (bass), Jerry Salas (vocals and guitar), Rudy Regalado (timbales), John De Luna (drums) and Mickey Lespron (guitar).
The band's veteran lead singer Ersi Arvizu was warmly received for a guest vocal on her signature bolero, "Sabor A Mi." She did the number like a diva and exited with a pitch: "Don't forget to buy my CD. Believe me, it sounds just like El Chicano." Well, not exactly. The work has little to do with Latin rock and stays truer to the bolero's romantic essence.
Lespron is the only band member who plays on Arvizu's album, "Friend for Life." On Sunday, he lit up the stage with thrilling guitar solos, switching to a vintage 1962 Gibson for "Viva Tirado," the guitar he used on the original recording.
"It felt great, man," said Lespron backstage after the show. "The magic's still there."