Don’t panic: while Sexto Sol continues to do occasional recordings and live shows (the last was August 3 at Luna), singer/keyboardist Sam Villela has been fronting his own solo band since April. I missed his first few performances, but I finally caught up with him in my least favorite scenario: a restaurant gig. Fortunately for me—and for the pleasantly surprised restaurant patrons—Villela, the band, threw all “restaurant music” preconceptions out the window and into the River Walk right from the start.
Unlike Sexto Sol, which possesses a solid Afro Latin percussionist in James Moody, at Barriba Villela offered a minimalist approach to soul, funk, rock, R&B and blues. Firmly supported by J. P. Leal (Bombasta) on bass and Ed Mendoza on drums, the fireworks came when Villela’s keys and near-show stealer Eddie Saucedo’s guitar played off each other (Saucedo replaced Bombasta’s Travis Vela for the night). It wasn’t the best vocal night for Villela, perhaps due to the fact that he’d had a rough day and, shortly before the first of three sets, was still wearing a hospital bracelet (“I’m having some potassium issues,” he said, and was due for more tests the next morning). Yet, he pulled it off with a gutsy display of magical solos.
To say his set was a mix of covers and originals would be a little misleading. True, I wish he had done more of his own material—he mixed the bilingual “There is You” with “When You Dance” (which has a bridge that sounds like a Chilean cueca/Mexican corrido hybrid) and continued with the soulful “Southern Star,” before giving way to the covers. But Villela’s songs deserved more time and he should highlight his own material. Having said this, these weren’t just “covers”—they were completely reinvented in the same way Joe Cocker reimagined “With a Little Help From My Friends,” with extended solos and grooves and surprises at every turn. The explosive, funky version of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” and a ferocious take on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” (with Saucedo singing and ripping the room apart with three killer solos) were showstoppers, but all I could think of is: “This guy needs an album of mostly originals, and he needs it fast.”
Kudos to Villela for going for it instead of playing it safe, and to Barriba Cantina for letting him get away with it.
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