Joe Claussell @ Grand Performances: Disappointing

Written by

As a sort of disclaimer I must say that I’m a huge fan of Joe’s work and don’t want a critical review to cloud that fact.   And I love and will keep featuring the new Africa Caribe cd that Codigo released.  It’s been a fave of mine and most other deejays at KCRW.  This being said………

On Friday night I went to the Joe Claussell show at Grand Performances at the California Plaza Water Court, nestled between skyscrapers, always a great place to enjoy summer concerts.  I had high expectations; over the years  I’ve enjoyed Claussell’s remix work with New Orleans and Brazilian music, and his approach with the Fania catalog displayed a similar organic touch and sensitivity to the original material.  After all, Joe’s dad has played percussion with Eddie Palmieri and the Claussell family was surrounded by the tropical music collectively known as salsa, so I arrived eager and expectant.

Unfortunately the show failed to ignite.  The crowd was dialed in, and KCRW music listeners at least by now certainly know the new album Hammock House:  Africa Caribe.  But somehow the musical alchemy I expected just never got off the ground.

Part of the problem was technical.  Joe’s computer was having problems and a tech person was out there trying to fix it.   A soprano sax solo from an original Fania side remained almost inaudible, a vestigial ghost of the original track.  The flute and calabash player, looking like an imam, was great, so was the African vocalist, who to me sounded Malian.  The percussionist and drummers were great too.  Was the Fania spirit supposed to be there too, or was this meant to be mostly a house music affair?  Were the ghosts of Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria disturbed?

Now I’m a big fan of tropical latin music and have many memorable shows over the past 20+ years.

But somehow on Friday it just didn’t fit together.  The live performance didn’t capture the vitality and creativity of the new cd.  I felt that Claussell would have sounded better as a deejay than as a deejay with a live band.  Or just give me a live salsa band with a nice edge.  But mixing a dj, house music, and salsa is more problematic.  For one thing, the clavé—the ubiquitous, finely-calibrated 2/3 or 3/2 syncopated rhythm basic to Congolese, Cuban or Puerto Rican or any tropical latin music —tends to get disrupted by a steady house beat.

Mea culpa, I left at 10:15, just before the end.  Maybe something miraculous happened in those final minutes.  But I don’t think so.

I may sound prejudiced or old fashioned if I say that when I hear an announcement “DJ so-and-so spinning with real live musicians” I am reminded of a juice bottle saying “with 10% real juice!”.  Give me 100% juice or a soft drink, but please don’t mix the two together.