Ozomatli @ Irving Plaza, 2/3/2011

I witnessed a strange thing on February 3rd. I went to a punk rock/ska/hip-hop/latin rock/reggae/funk/salsa show at Irving Plaza in New York. This is a strange statement under any circumstances, but stranger yet to hear I saw only one band. This band was Ozomatli. I almost wet myself I had to much fun.

Ozomatli, formed in Los Angeles around 15 years ago, played Irving in support of their new album “Fire Away”, released almost a year ago. The record is usual fare for Ozomatli. Much like their hometown of Los Angeles – a melting pot of America, a gigantic, sprawling metropolis with millions of people of different religions, races, classes and cultures living within the city limits – the band has consisted of anywhere between seven and a dozen members, deriving from several different ethnicities, cultures and nationalities (for example, some of the current line-up includes a Japanese percussionist, a tattooed Mexican guitarist, an black MC, and a Caucasian drummer). This has created an incredible mixture of musical influences, coming together to result in a nearly unclassifiable musical stew. However, truth be told, their new album is somewhat lacking.

What I mean by that is that the songs are good. They’re just fine. “Malagasy Shock” is a salsa-infused ska anthem with the propulsion and energy of 1995. “45” is a funky little hip-hop/rock crossover to move your head. “Gay Vatos in Love” could be a Los Lobos song – I don’t mean that as a knock (though I could see how that might be the case)…I just mean that I think I could hear it on the radio. All these songs are fine – but if you’ve ever heard some of their other records, and especially if you have seen them live, you’d understand the type of energy that they can produce, which sometimes translates to their studio work. “Fire Away” is a fine record – but it’s very polished and glossed over. I’m not saying I want to hear everything raw, without tuning or some makeover – I think early Kings of Leon sounds like garbage because it appear to have been recorded in a tin can – but I’m saying that I would like a band with such emotion and excitement to have that energy translated to their studio work.

That all being said, Ozo is one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen. Most importantly, I just find myself having fun at their shows (There is a difference between “fun” and “great”. Not every show I go to is “fun”. I would never say Jose Gonzalez has a “fun” show. I’d say he has a great show. See?) But Ozomatli is always fun, and I think that starts because it always looks like the band is having a great time. These guys all act like being on stage and playing for their fans is the best possible thing they could be doing at that moment, and shallow or not, that type of ingratiation makes me feel good – I’m so lonely. This is a type of energy that really can’t be replicated, except with this type of performance. They also are pretty incredible musicians – they rely heavily on improvisation, spinning many of their songs into eight or nine minute versions, that, at times, are not reminiscent of the original.

All this energy and skill were best on display during “Cumbia de los Muertos”, “Gallina”, “Ya Viene el Sol”, “Afterparty” and “Chango”. Even the new jams, like “Malagasy” and “45” sounded better in concert than on their studio record counterparts – which only solidified my opinion about “Fire Away”. It’s not often that you get an even more negative position on a record after hearing a band live, but I think with Ozo’s new material, that’s the case. Nothing can really match up to the spectacular live show they put on. Especially not when they end the show by hitting the house lights, marching into the crowd with their instruments and starting a conga line (yes, seriously) and playing such classic rock bangers like “the hokey-pokey” and “the Mexican hat dance” (I’m serious. It was awesome. Look at that picture above!) The only thing I noticed as a negative about the show is that the band, while playing a great show, had less energy relative to all their other shows I have seen in Los Angeles. I’m not sure if they just had an off night, but this band feeds off the energy of the crowd, which is always at an extremely high level at home in LA. I mean, where do you think the crowd is going to go the most nuts for the song “City of Angels”?

Bottom line? If this band comes to your town, go see them. I don’t care if you’ve never hear them before, if you can’t pronounce their name or if you hate minorities – you will love this band. I’d put a personal moneyback guarantee right there.

Not really. I’m very poor. I won’t give you any money.

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