By Devon Wendell
Social and political activist Dolores Huerta celebrated her 80th birthday at The Greek Theatre on Friday with a night of music, movie stars, and politicians called Weaving Movements Together, a benefit concert with performances by Pete Escovedo and his band, Lila. Downs, Zach De La Rocha (with his latest group One Day As A Lion), and Carlos Santana with the Pete Escovedo band.
Although this was an important event for a very important lady, the presence of the music was diminished by drawn out speeches from Hollywood celebs and political figures such as Martin Sheen, Ed Begley Jr., Danny Glover, Benjamin Bratt, Mayor Villaraigosa, and even President Obama via satellite, who wished Huerta a happy birthday. It eventually became clear that Huerta’s message was most powerful and eloquent coming from her own lips, rather than those of the dignitaries. And the influence and energy that music brings to political change should have been acknowledged with more performance space.
Opening the show, Pete Escovedo and his band were joined by his two sons Juan on percussion and Peter Michael on drums. Escovedo played his signature Latin jazz swing on three instrumentals — the most impressive a composition called “Samba.” Aside from the thunderously brilliant percussion by the Escovedos, which drove the music, veteran saxophonist George Shelby played a wonderfully melodic flute solo followed by the imaginative keyboard work of Joe Rotondi. But trombone great Arturo Velasco could have been louder in the mix. And guitarist Michael “Angel” Alvarado’s phrasing sounded a bit too close to that of Carlos Santana’s, and too prominent in contrast to the other band members.
But after three numbers, as Escovedo and his band seemed to be just warming up, their set was concluded for a well intentioned speech and happy birthday wishes to Huerta by actor and activist Ed Begley Jr.
Mexican/U.S. singer songwriter Lila Downs followed with an incredible set that was one of the highlights of the night. Opening with the politically charged “Land/Pastures Of Plenty.” which had a reggae feel, Downs’s unique voice and wide vocal range combined superbly with lyrics about the plight of the farm workers. It was a song that spoke more to the message and legacy of Huerta than the offerings of any other musician, politician, or actor on the program.
Downs’ “Minimum Wage,” about over-worked and under-paid immigrant workers, explored one of the many causes Huerta has fought for in a clear and concise manner. This composition had a country and blues feel and Downs sang in a low register with a surprisingly Johnny Cash-like sound. Guitarist Rafael Gomez’s lead phrasing was menacing and bluesy. This number and others displayed the versatility and sense of adventure driving Downs and her band, with Mike Bolger a standout instrumentalist, alternating between fluid trumpet lines and haunting accordion textures.
The performance of “La Llorona” (“The Crying Woman”), based on a popular Hispanic legend of love, murder, and rejection stimulated Downs’ best vocal performance of the set. But her program wasn’t all seriousness. Songs such as “Los Pollos” had her dancing across the stage like a chicken, with Bolger’s accordion giving the music a danceable Cumbia feel.
It was no surprise that De La Rocha’s mix of hip-hop and hard rock sounded like Rage Against The Machine. But the set was impacted by the fact that his vocals were amplified with too much reverb and delay, making the lyrics totally inaudible. Jon Theodore’s drums and the overly distorted keyboard work of Joey Karam were too loud and many of the numbers sounded the same.
At this point, Huerta was finally introduced and spoke of her continuing fight against the war, the immigration issue, and the struggle for equal rights. After a host of stars saluted her with “Happy Birthday,” Huerta introduced Carlos Santana as “The Ambassador of Peace,” with Pete Escovedo’s band. The pair had toured together for three years in the ‘70s, and recorded three albums — Moonflower, Oneness, and Inner Secrets — so this was a joyous reunion, triggering relentlessly powerful energy and symmetry between these two musical titans.
The set began with the up-tempo Latin funk of “Corazon Espinado,” which immediately displayed Santana’s bright, singing tone and fiery blues phrasing, fused with Escovedo’s salsa percussion. Seventy-five years young, Escovedo attacked the timbales with a youthful energy that pushed Carlos to add even more sparks to his playing.
Santana’s classic, jazz-flavored instrumental ballad “Samba Pa Ti” had him playing his most soulful as his guitar cried and screamed like B.B. King meets Jimi Hendrix, who were both major influences on Santana’s guitar style and musical approach. His focus on dynamics and finesse was awe inspiring, making this the high point of the set. The music continued with Santana crowd pleasers such as “Black Magic Woman” and his take on Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va,” opening more space for Escovedo and his sons to lay down strong polyrhythmic grooves. Bassist Marc Van Wageningen kept a steady pulse as Santana and the Escovedos took flight into joyous abandon. And Joe Rotondi supplied subtle yet colorful synthesizer work which added to the mood.
The show ended with Escovedo’s classic R&B salsa swing “Whatcha Gonna Do,” and by this point the energy level was at its highest point, as Santana and Escovedo fed off each other’s raw energy. But, after a short drum solo by Peter Michael Escovedo and a wah-wah guitar run by Santana, it was time to stop, even though the band sounded and looked as though they could keep playing all night.
Although there was an excess of talk and frills at Dolores Huerta’s Weaving Movements Together benefit concert, the real message of the evening proved once again that the power of music and the fight against social and political injustice still go hand in hand.
Escovedo and Santana photos by Tony Gieske. View more of Tony’s photos here.