Damian Quiñones Brings His Edgy, Individualistic, Psychedelic Latin Soul Uptown

by delarue

It was fun to see Damian Quiñones y Su Conjunto rock the back room at their most recent appearance at Barbes a few weeks ago. It’s an intimate space, and for that reason, other than the blazing Balkan brass groups – Slavic Soul Party, Raya Brass Band, et al. – who play here, the club doesn’t book a lot of loud music. While Quiñones draws on an early 70s Nuyorican sound popularized by cult favorites like the Ghetto Brothers, his songs rock harder than most of that era’s latin soul bands. And he’s an individualistic songwriter who draws more on classic pop structures, a la Elvis Costello, than on longform latin psychedelic acts like Santana. He and the band are playing Silvana in Harlem on Dec 13 at 10 PM, which should work out well since they have the muscle to be heard over the chatty Saturday night bar crowd there.

At Barbes, Quiñones sang in both English and Spanish, backed by a purist, bluesy lead guitarist, tight bass and drums, a keyboardist who doubled on trombone, and a conguero and alto saxophonist who came up for most of the second half of the show. Quiñones is a lefty, which might help explain his interesting guitar technique; that, and his mix of traditional Puerto Rican and rock sounds. He and the band opened with Sleepy Eyes, which is basically Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me with better vocals, jazzier harmonies and some rhythmic trickery. Quiñones opened the next number with a wickedly catchy four-chord hook that he then jazzed up over a steady, strutting rhythm, doubling the bassline as the song peaked coming out of the chorus.

He started another song solo, as nebulous acidically jangly early 80s postpunk – then in a second it morphed into a catchy, anthemic bossa-rock tune with swirly organ in the background that reminded of the late, great Williamsburg band the Disclaimers. The lead player took a long, slithery, blues-infused solo on a bouncy number that was sort of a latin soul update on Wilbert Harrison’s Kansas City – and then added a long slide solo for an strangely successful southern rock touch.

Quiñones switched from guitar to cuatro for some Byrdsy jangle over a syncopated clave beat on the instrumental that followed, evoking one of Yomo Toro’s more adventurous, low-key numbers from the 80s. They followed that with a slinky, salsa-inflected lowrider psychedelic tune, the sax and trombone conversing and intertwining. From there they lept from hard funk into a long, hypnotic psychedelic cumbia, a galloping instrumental and then back into  expansive, psychedelic mode. It’s not often you see a band that has this much going on, yet with so much focus and drive: attributes that will pay off at the show uptown.