If you visited the Fillmore on the evening of 7 December 2012, AND:
- watched a banana dancing onstage, AND;
- got out of the way of Wushu masters demonstrating soft weapons, AND;
- saw a gorilla surfing over the audience, AND;
- multi-instumentalist Ulises Bella sweated on you from six feet away; THEN
You saw one of the finest live shows in the 17-year history of Ozomatli, one of America’s finest live bands.
But they had a lot of help from their opening acts. Kanetic Source, a former emcee with Ozomatli, did the best he could with a quarter-filled auditorium that didn’t know who he was and dedicated his show to a doctor (more on this later). Up next came the most exciting performances by an opening act I’ve ever seen at the Fillmore, a torrid set by Oakland’s Los Rakas, consisting of a pair of Panamanian-American cousins, two percussionists and a turntable artist. In common with many bands following in Ozomatli’s footsteps, they combine many popular genres, including plena (a new one to me). They started their set with slow but rhythmic numbers, gradually increasing the tempi of their songs until they turned the energy all the way up to 12 (11 is just so totally 80’s), winning the audience over completely and taking us on one heck of an incredible ride. I cannot recommend too strongly that you check out this band.
So how would Ozomatli top this? The band has a reputation for supporting up and coming acts (they will always win back the audience anyway), but Los Rakas had scorched the ballroom’s ceiling and no one, I mean no one was going to forget that performance.
Solution: do things Ozomatli almost never does.
Starting with their entrance. The band is famous for ending their shows by wandering into the audience while still playing their instruments and leading the fans in a huge conga line. Friday, they entered from the back of the auditorium, playing percussion and forming a drum circle in the middle of the floor. Into the circle stepped a pair of Wushu masters demonstrating their skills with rope darts, which can be as dangerous to the wielder as to the opponent. Fortunately, these two knew how to use their “soft weapons” (a total misnomer for rope darts).
The result: before the band took the stage, the crowd had gone nuts for their heroes.
In between the folk dancers in traditional Central American costumes (new to me) and the dance contest between the primates and the bananas (very new to me) and the return of the Wushu masters for another demonstration, the band brought Kanetic Source back onstage to take over lead vocals for one of their signature songs “Saturday Night.” Did not expect that at all, but the Source sizzled in his role as band member for a day. Turns out this was Ozomatli giving their support to the former band member, and why he had dedicated his set to a physician: keep your fingers crossed–thanks to the doctor, Kanetic’s son could become the third person in history to beat a rare form of brain cancer. KS stuck around to help support the band on percussion and performed brilliantly.
A couple of little surprises in the audience. First, your faithful correspondent wasn’t the only person in the audience as old as I am. I guess after 17 years of supporting the band, the audience will start to show its age. Second, one young woman at the front of the stage danced just as much as everyone else, but unlike everyone else she faced away from the band. Then I realized that a couple of band members were staring at her derriere. OK. Then I understood.
I have to single out drummer Mario Calire for special praise. The only band member who did not jump around the stage from instrument to instrument, Calire (as far as I can tell) gave a perfect performance, maintaining the rhythm and tempo and supporting Ozomatli’s usual onstage madness. For at least this one night, he was as good a percussionist as anyone alive.
Of course they concluded the show with their usual parade into the crowd, but even here Ozomatli switched things up a bit. Unlike last year’s show, the band did not eventually parade to their dressing room, but instead finished performing at the Fillmore’s bar (including an impromptu rendition of the dance classic “Tequila”). Two amazing things happened when they closed the show. First, Ozomatli did not leave their adoring fans. Second, their adoring fans did not go crazy. I have no idea how the band does it, but as frenzied, raucous, physical and crazy as an Ozomatli show gets, the fans never go bad crazy. Impressive crowd control. Instead of going nuts, their enthusiastic fans politely asked guys like Raul Pacheco to pose with them for photos and the guys said yes every single time. Aside from the fact that all of the band members look much shorter when they aren’t performing, what really stands out is just how normal they are; you can’t tell the band members from their fans.
I hope the annual Ozomatli-at-the-Fillmore show will remain one of San Francisco’s best holiday traditions for many years to come.
Vonn Scott Bair