Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Decade Later, Ozomatli Still Sounds As Good As The First Time I Saw Them

As far as first time concert experiences go, none can quite match the first time I saw Ozomatli live.

The Los Angeles 8-piece band (or is it 10?) are my generation's War and Malo: a continuation of Chicano funk funnelled through hip-hop, salsa, cumbia and any number of musical styles they might pick up that day before the gig (this week it's middle eastern).

The first time I saw them live was in 1997, at a tiny bar in Sacramento. I also happened to be performing with my teatro troupe for the first time that night.

At that point, they were unknown (to me at least), but they brought the noise like a warrior's symphony. Then-DJ Cut Chemist masterfully mixed DJ scratching with straight-forward cumbia. Rapper Chali 2na (who would go on, along with Chemist, to further his fame as a member of Jurassic 5) spit baritone heat.

The horn section had the soul of a Motown review, while band leaders Wil Dog and Raul Pacheco orchestrated the chaos. I was immediately converted.

In time, I would run into the band at various gigs, even so far as to be invited on stage to spit a verse or two. I would talk the band up every chance I got, telling whoever would listen to check out their show.

All of these memories flooded back to me Friday night, as I went to watch the band almost 10 years after seeing them for the first time.

Playing a gig at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, Ozomatli simply brought the noise like they always have and always will.

I got to the gig late and regretfully missed openers Crown City Rockers (shame on me!). As I got in, I recognized the familiar thump, the salsa grooves grating against James Brown drums and funky horns. I ran through the sold-out crowd to get as close as possible, and saw the band on stage, commanding the crowd, jamming out at full blast. The audience ate up every morsel.

Standards like "Cumbia," "Feo," and "Como Vez" got the crowd jumping up and down. The latter two songs came as the big finish, a mega-mix that featured CCR keyboardist Kat joining in the fun.

A Spanish ballad by Pacheco also served as a big number, the type of arena rock, lighter-flicking tune that any great rock band a has in their arsenal.

As I stood watching the band from the upstairs balcony, my mind bounced back and forth between my first experience with them and now. I have literally seen them more than a dozen times, along with hundreds of other live concerts, since that first time. All through this, I have never quite had a moment that matched that first Ozomatli show.

Perhaps it was the music itself, which to me was a revelation - who knew back then that a band could so effortlessly mix traditional Mexicano and Latino rhythms with hip-hop boom bap?

Plus, the added treat of watching a band that I knew was bound to blow up was gravy. I felt like I had discovered a grand treasure first. Over the years, I've watched the group progress, switching members, switching sounds, winning Grammys, showing up in movies ("Never Been Kissed") and television shows ("Sex and the City").

Not to mention the added bragging rights of having performed with the band. It's enough to make me feel like I know some celebrities.

So Friday night's show was a re-visit with some old friends, not a concert review. If you haven'd done so already, go check out Ozomatli next time they come to town. The first time is always the best.

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