When a 10-piece Latin funk band starts their Austin City Limits taping with a rendition of “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, you know you’re in for a special evening.
Grupo Fantasma gave the energetic crowd exactly that. Delivering a powerful, body-shaking blend of samba, merengue and Latin jams, this groove-tastic Austin staple blew the roof off the Moody Theatre. My foot still aches from the constant toe-tapping.
Grupo Fantasma: Austin Original
They’ve been doing it since the year 2000. Over their 16 years as a band, Grupo Fantasma has grown from a bi-weekly gig at Empanada Parlor to completing six albums, earning a Grammy and receiving international recognition. Their music has been featured on shows like “Weeds,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Law & Order” and their sound has taken them to festivals all over the world. When Prince repeatedly asks you to be his backing band, you know you’ve done something special.
Their Austin City Limits performance showcased what makes Grupo one of a kind. A dozen varieties of congas, bongos, gock blocks and timbales crowded the stage. A modestly-sized floor audience, coming in from a humid and sticky Tuesday night, were whipped into a dancing frenzy. Even the sparely populated balcony couldn’t ignore the rhythm. Folks were dancing in their seats.
Most of Grupo Fantasma’s set consisted of songs from their new record, “Problemas.” After their horn section/rock scream open, the band launched into “Nada,” a slow-burning cumbia, and followed with the irresistible “Esa Negra.” Complete with a searing horn line and wicked accordion solo, this tightly-wound sing-along tune set the tone for the entire evening.
From there, magic was everywhere. Lead singer and percussionist Jose Galeano smoked the skins off his timbales during “Descarga Pura Y Dura,” while a flute solo sweetened “Cayuco,” a sultry mambo torn from the horns and heat of Cuban dance halls.
Blast From the Past
But it wasn’t all about the new record. Grupo Fantasma honored longtime fans by breaking out choice cuts from their previous five albums. The railroad rhythm of “Montanozo” from 2010’s “El Existential” segued seamlessly into the minimal, yet hyperactive, “Cana Brava” off their first, self-titled record. Even The Beatles received the Grupo treatment via a sensational cover of “Because.” Backed by a five-piece mariachi band that swelled the stage to the point of bursting, the song reverberated through the Moody Theater with tight percussion and lush harmonies.
Around the taping’s halfway point, founding member Adrian Quesada walked on stage, morphing Grupo Fantasma into Brownout, a satellite band most famously known for Latin renditions of Black Sabbath songs. More funk- and soul-driven than Grupo Fantasma, Brownout played three tunes: “Aguilas and Cobras,” a bass-driven jam pulled straight from a spy thriller, the Southern rock-tinged “The Blade” and “Things You Say,” a crowd-pleasing shout-along.
The night wasn’t without its somber moments. Towards the end of the show, Galeano teared up at the mention of his old friend, Prince. They then launched into a big, brassy cover of Prince’s “Controversy” that lit the Austin City Limits audience aflame. A fitting tribute to a recently-departed legend.
Can’t Stop Dancing in My Seat
After the band finished their encore with the salsa merengue mixture of “Salsa Caliente,” the crowd filed back into the steamy Austin evening. When I returned home and reviewed my notes from the show, everything was scrawled in a mad scramble. Probably because I had spent the previous 90 minutes dancing in my seat.
And that’s what Grupo Fantasma does, and has been doing for a decade and a half. When the taping airs on PBS this coming fall, make sure to watch it with the air conditioning off, windows open, dance partner by your side. Prepare to sweat, sing and sway away to these Austin originals.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
What’s your favorite Austin City Limits performance of all time?