GRUPO FANTASMA at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), tonight (Thursday, June 29), 8 pm. $15 advance. 416-588-0307, www.ticketweb.com. Rating: NNNNN
At first glance, the idea of a brass-blastin' Latin big band hailing from Texas and kicking out a pre-salsa mix of old-school Latin jazz and Colombian cumbia with a Santana-esque guitar tweak might seem unlikely, if not completely implausible. But once you find out the 10-piece attack unit is based in the wannabe-cosmopolitan state capital, Austin, the whole Grupo Fantasma concept of cumbia caliente with a Texas twist suddenly makes perfect sense.
That's probably why Grupo Fantasma have also had a lock on the contemporary Latin band category of the Austin Music Awards for the past four years straight. How does a hard-riffing Latin orchestra like this come together and actually thrive in Twangtown?
"It took a while for what we were doing to catch on," guitarist Adrian Quesada chuckles knowingly. "When we started, it was strictly instrumental Latin funk with some cumbia thrown in, but as we progressed we began to model ourselves after the 50s and 60s golden-age big bands from Colombia that recorded for Discos Fuentes."
Back then they were performing mostly at house parties for a case of beer. Eventually, they played a show at a tiny off-the-beaten-path club called the Empanada Parlor.
"The only reason that happened was because our sound man booked the venue. That's where we played for the next two years, until it closed down. When we started looking for other gigs, we realized we were actually now welcome to play shows at the bigger, established Austin clubs, and many more people began to coming to see us."
Having only heard Grupo Fantasma's somewhat lacklustre studio recordings, which are considered contemporary Latin classics in some parts of Texas, it was difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. The influence of the Fania All-Stars is obvious, and I've probabaly got some of the Fruko y Sus Tesos and Irakere records they've been taking notes from. Somehow, their performance didn't come close to matching the reports of their supposidly cataclysmic Austin tin-roof-raisers.
On their new self-released Grupo Fantasma Comes Alive disc (Aire/Sol), however, the band finally lives up to the hype. The explosive sound of the band in action makes you wonder why they didn't record a live album sooner.
"Our strength has always been in performing. So many people were asking us for an album that we decided to go into a studio, and recorded our first disc in three days. We didn't really have our sound down and we didn't know how to make a studio album.
"The second album was very well received, but many of our fans told us it didn't really capture what we do onstage, so six years later we said, 'Let's make a live album.' Antone's is set up for live recording, and we always had a good relationship with the owner, Clifford Antone, so we did it there."
Grupo Fantasma's Come Alive turned out to be one of the final shows the legendary Austin impresario would host. Just 12 days after recording the March 11 show, Antone - who helped transform the sleepy college town into the live music mecca it is today - was found dead after suffering an apparent heart attack in his apartment. He was just 56.
"Clifford was a real character. Every time we'd play at Antone's, he'd come up with a different weird mispronunciation of our name, like 'Grupo Fantasimo' or 'Fantasimoog' - always something new and strange. The night we recorded the album at Antone's, he got onstage just before we came back for the encore and was going on and on about how great we were, but he kept saying our name wrong. We thought about leaving that on the recording because it was so funny, but we decided against it at the last minute.
"He was a very big supporter. About two years after we started, he said he knew our stuff and really liked our group, which was amazing to us because we had no idea he'd even heard about us. He was always very generous when we were still largely unknown, and always spoke from the heart. We'll all miss him."