It's hard to imagine a more inspired pairing than War and Poncho Sanchez, who play together Friday night at the Sun Theatre. War is among the most criminally underrated bands of the past 31 years in several important respects. First, they remain largely faceless to the average fan despite a long legacy of powerful funk/soul/rock hits, which include "Spill the Wine," "All Day Music," "Lowrider," "The Cisco Kid," "Why Can't We Be Friends," "Summer," "Slippin' Into Darkness" "Me and Baby Brother" and "The World Is a Ghetto" (whew!). Second, they were trailblazers in bringing a profound Latin influence to the pop-music table, even though the Long Beach-based group was—and continues to be—primarily African-American. Third, War has been among the most influential bands in many forms of contemporary music—from Latin pop to hip-hop to acid jazz, genres in which their timeless, groove-based sound has served as something of a template. Last, the group has remained fresh, vital and experimental while retaining its essential vibe through 30 years and several personnel changes. War's commercial heyday has long passed, but this is not a band content to ride the nostalgia circuit on the fumes of a rep forged years ago, a statement to which both their recent albums and always exciting, often marathon-length concerts attest.
Conguero extraordinaire Sanchez, meanwhile, has perhaps the most active Latin jazz ensemble in the world, with more than 30 albums in the past 18 years and a touring schedule that would make the most road-hardened veteran dizzy with dread. Texas-born and -bred Sanchez is also a purist, a reactionary even, a guy who fiercely resents all pop music but particularly any pop music that dares label itself "Latin" while embracing any outside flourishes (you just know he has voodoo dolls of Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Oscar De La Hoya in his suitcase). The grumpus Sanchez has even gone so far as to dis lovable old grandpa figure Carlos Santana. "I don't care for his music," Sanchez once told me. "That's rock music, and I'm not into rock music. I'm into hardcore jazz and authentic Latin music. I can't stand all that pop salsa that you hear today, all that bubble-gum, pretty-boy stuff. If that's what people like, then fine, but don't try to tell me it's happening stuff because I know my music well."
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Sanchez is likely disgruntled at sharing a bill with the decidedly impure War —particularly in the opening slot. But the two acts should, in fact, complement each other wonderfully, and perhaps the bad vibes between the two camps will spur them both on to even greater heights as they strive to outdo each other.
I've never seen Guitar Shorty live before, but his reputation as the wildest of wild bluesmen precedes him. Somersaults, back flips and other such acrobatics (all while playing guitar, of course) compose the riffs of his shtick, and a career high point—or low point, depending on your perspective—was when he won first prize on The Gong Show for performing his signature "They Call Me Guitar Shorty" while balancing on his head. Shorty was also a brother-in-law to Jimi Hendrix and reportedly taught his charge a few things about showmanship. Shorty has been recording and performing since 1957 without ever rising to the top shelf of the blues world. His guitar work is savage and feral (if a bit on the generic side); minor-key torchers are his specialty. Stylistically, he's from the Otis Rush/Son Seals/ Luther Allison school, but Shorty's sound has never been idiosyncratic enough to really establish him as anything more than a proficient journeyman. Proficient journeymen are jake in my book, though—particularly proficient journeymen whose entertainment quotient is through the roof. Be entertained this Saturday night at the Blue Cafe.
Usually reliable Rhino Records has subverted what could have been a major event in their new four-disc boxed set, Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words From the Harlem Renaissance. The problem ain't with the plethora of early century jazz and blues (which is glorious, of course) but in collecting a horde of African-American celebrities to recite the works of such celebrated writers as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. DuBois. The spoken passages interrupt the flow of the music, and most of the assemblage (which includes such strange bedfellows as Quincy Jones, Angela Bassett, Ice-T, Chuck D, Eartha Kitt, Famous Amos and LeVar Burton) gleefully ham it up beyond anything endurable. An unintended chuckle comes from Hootie & the Blowfish's Darius Rucker, who can't seem to find enough soul to recite the thick dialect of Sterling Brown's poem "Long Gone" as written and winds up sounding about as black as Orrin Hatch. Still, if you program these atrocities out of your CD player, you're left with hours of music by Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson and dozens of other seminal, African-American musical giants and obscurities, plus the untenable inclusion of a few tracks by Paul Whiteman, who was very white indeed, both genetically and musically. Guess that's whatcha call reverse political correctness.
WAR AND PONCHO SANCHEZ PERFORM AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. FRI., 8 P.M. $32.50; GUITAR SHORTY PLAYS AT THE BLUE CAFE, 210 THE PROMENADE, LONG BEACH, (562) 983-7111. SAT., 10 P.M. $10. 21+.