Four live albums that both revive exhilarating memories and inspire reassessments of the performers' work are the focus of this month's Latin Pulse, a look at noteworthy recent releases in the field of Latin pop.
*** 1/2 Soda Stereo, "El Ultimo Concierto," BMG Latin. If you care at all about rock en espan~ol, you'll find it difficult not to be moved by this two-CD document of Soda Stereo's farewell concert. The seminal Argentine band started the second wave of rock en espan~ol, motivating dozens of Latin bands to pick up their guitars, crank up the amplifiers and play rock 'n' roll. The band's soul was always Gustavo Cerati, a singer-songwriter who started out imitating British new wave, and through years of touring and recording turned his band into an inexhaustible source of musical experimentation, obsessed equally with the Beatles and electronics.
Cerati disbanded the group in order to follow his personal muse. This set is arguably the one Soda Stereo record to keep, because of the sheer emotional power in each track. The fact that this is a last toast before parting ways adds a sweet, poignant dimension to even their most pedestrian pop songs.
*** 1/2 Juan Gabriel, "Celebrando 25 An~os," BMG Latin. Only an artist of Gabriel's stature could release a double-CD of his extravagant live show in Mexico's Palacio de Bellas Artes only eight years after doing exactly the same thing with an album recorded at the same hall.
This one is more satisfying, mostly due to a richer, fuller sound that showcases Gabriel's powerful voice while leaving space in the mix for his band, a mariachi ensemble, a full orchestra and even a choir.
The song selection is also a treat, demonstrating that Gabriel might just be Mexico's most talented songwriter ever. The two-hour plus set includes early hits such as the old-fashioned "No Tengo Dinero," with new songs thrown in, such as "Te Sigo Amando," proving that his peak days are far from over.
Listening to the whole set in one sitting will leave you exhausted, which is exactly the feeling you get after attending one of Gabriel's marathon performances.
** 1/2 Los Enanitos Verdes, "Traccion Acustica," PolyGram. Was this set really necessary? Granted, Los Enanitos Verdes has always displayed good taste in all of its recordings, but an "Unplugged"-style album is the last thing to expect at this time from the venerable rock en espan~ol band.
"Traccion Acustica" finds Los Enanitos working for a new label, as their old one (EMI Latin) is simultaneously releasing a new studio effort, "Planetario." The songs performed on this acoustic concert mostly ignore the new record, as well as the previous one, the superlative "La Guerra Gaucha."
Instead, classic Enanitos fare such as "Guitarras Blancas" and the revived Latin American oldie "El Extran~o del Pelo Largo" are performed with brio with the help of some deluxe guest musicians. Guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and accordionist Julieta Venegas add much-needed color to the mostly conservative instrumentation.
*** Various artists, "Celebrating RMM's 10th Anniversary," RMM. The label tries mixing art and commerce on this extravagant two-CD live set. But it's hard to dismiss a show that includes luminaries such as Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Oscar D'Leon, India and Marc Anthony, to name a few.
The beauty of the set lies in the democratic spirit in which label owner Ralph Mercado gives equal space to every member of the RMM family, be it a superstar or a newcomer. Under this principle, the label has become the salsa equivalent of Motown, single-handedly defining the aesthetics of the genre for a whole decade.
This showcase abruptly shifts between the glorious and the dismal. Overall, the label's new musical director, Isidro Infante (who replaced the more showy Sergio George), manages to provide a cohesive, quality musical backdrop on which the individual singers strut their stuff. Any song performed by Celia Cruz or Cheo Feliciano is worth savoring, but the newcomers to the game are not always that promising. And when D'Leon includes his sons rapping to the otherwise spicy "Mujer de Arena," what could be ground-breaking becomes self-defeating. Overall, a good sample of salsa's tendencies and traditions at the end of the '90s.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).
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* Excerpts from these albums are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips