Sol searching

Sexto Sol responds to frontman Sam Villela’s return from Iraq with a collection of pensive groove workouts

When Sexto Sol singer-keyboardist Sam Villela left San Antonio for a stint in Iraq at the end of 2003, neither he nor his bandmates knew if their band had a future. As an active-duty member of the U.S. Army Reserves, Villela was assigned to assist in road-construction work in Iraq. Eager to complete as much work as possible before Villela’s departure, Sexto Sol spent the final weeks before he left recording basic tracks for a follow-up to the Latin-soul quintet’s eponymously titled 2003 debut album. At the time, band members thought they were close to completing the project, and assumed that they would apply the finishing touches while waiting for Villela’s return.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Sexto Sol, from left: Sam Villela, Juan Miguel Ramos, Greg Goodman, James Moody, and Eddie Hernandez.

“We’d recorded about 10 tracks, but we ended up not using four of them,” Greg Goodman, Sexto Sol’s bassist, says. “I felt like we didn’t have the heart to finish the project without him there.”

“The reality is, I think we’re an evolution of a band,” says Villela, who is currently nursing an injured hand that was cut by broken glass from a falling mirror. “So naturally, when we revisit some studio stuff that was done two years ago, we’ve evolved, for good and bad, beyond that.”

Villela wound up re-cutting some of his vocals, and other band members similarly re-thought their performances. In addition, the band decided to bring the disc up-to-date by including six recent live performances. It is to the credit of the band’s stellar musicianship, Roland de la Cruz’s production work, and Goodman’s meticulous mixes of the live tracks that the resulting album, Let There Be Fire, feels like a cohesive whole.

Villela says he wrote at least a dozen songs while in Iraq, and found that he couldn’t turn off his musical thoughts, no matter how inconvenient the circumstances in which they came to him.

“As a songwriter, it’s not that you find time,” he says. “It finds you, and you make time for it. I remember being on the road several times in Iraq thinking, ‘I don’t want to forget about this idea,’ and I’d write it in grease pencil on the humvee window. I wrote ‘SA Lady’ in Fallujah.”

The band’s instrumental interplay has gradually developed over the course of the last nine years, and their interpersonal chemistry is unmistakable when they banter about their music. Goodman is the conscientous organizer and de-facto publicist. Villela is the ultra-confident firebrand whose unabashed ambition fuels the band. Percussionist James Moody is the laid-back comedian, while guitarist Eddie Hernandez is proficient with the droll one-liner. Drummer Juan Miguel Ramos is the quiet, steady timekeeper, who tends to think most deeply about the group’s place in the historical sweep of Chicano rock.

In the days leading up to his Iraq deployment, Villela seemed predictably somber and tense, and it’s revealing to see him now, overflowing with enthusiasm for the group’s music, and even poking fun at his military résumé.

When Ramos teases Villela about announcing the title of the band’s cover of Maze’s “Happy Feelin’s” at the end of a performance in which he’d sung the title dozens of times, a deadpan Villela pretends to jot down his name, gruffly saying: “Ramos. Private Ramos.”

Sexto Sol
Fred Himes
J.J. Lopez

10pm Sat, Jul 29

Ruta Maya Riverwalk Coffeehouse
107 E. Martin

Even at the time of their debut’s release, the members of Sexto Sol tended to damn it with faint praise, suggesting that it was a nice start, but a bit too tentative and polished. Villela, who had never sung in a studio before making the album, says he felt that jitters got the better of him during the recording process.

No one could make that assessment of Let There Be Fire, which brims with the collective dynamism that the group regularly brings to their club gigs. And even though many of the songs were written before Villela’s term in Iraq, there’s an overriding sense of anxiety to the lyrics, a feeling that something is about to slip away. That feeling comes through most forcefully on the soulful “You Know I Love You,” in which Villela frets that his lover hates him whenever he’s gone.

“The overtone of it became that I was anticipating leaving,” Villela says. “So when the lyrics catch up to the music, it eventually says something bigger than when it started. We reinvent ourselves constantly in our music, without having to reinvent our approach to how we do it.”

Even the album’s radio-bait cover of the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (a song the group has played for years) takes on the aura of a worried man separated from his family. Conversely, the disc’s more buoyant groove workouts, such as “Chicano Superstar” and “Happy Feelin’s,” suggest the exhilaration of reconnecting with your community after a period of absence.

For all his current ebullience, Villela concedes that a few months ago he questioned whether there was room in his life to continue playing in a band. He says those doubts were dispelled after the group received an 11th-hour call to substitute for an ailing Lenny Kravitz as the opening act at Aerosmith’s AT&T Center concert. Band members, lubricated with a few shots of Dutch courage, prepared themselves for a rain of boos from disappointed Kravitz fans. Instead, apart from a few mild gibes when they hit the stage, they were warmly received. Villela says it “rejuvenated” him, because it offered a hint that this group can command a big stage and convert an audience that didn’t come to see them.

“I think our playground or our sandbox is a lot bigger than Texas,” Villela says, “because I don’t think we’re indicative of any Texas band that I’ve heard or seen.

“As far as touring goes, some big decisions are going to have to be made, because we aren’t guys who are just musicians. I don’t think one of us can tomorrow say, ‘Boom, I’m gone.’ We’ve got bills and mortgages and kids. But that’s the next logical step.”

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