Vox Urbana at Barbes: One of NYC’s Best Shows of the Year

by delarue

Saturday night at Barbes, Tucson psychedelic cumbia band Vox Urbana played one of the most deliriously fun shows anywhere in New York this year. They sound like Chicha Libre with horns – yeah, that good.

They opened with a slinky, eerily vampy number, the musical equivalent of a red-on-black Sequeiros tableau. The tremoloing funeral parlor organ in tandem with frontman Kiki Castellanos’ watery, vintage chorus-box guitar gave the music both a menace and a retro allure with tight, bright brass overhead. The number after that sounded like a Burning Spear reggae hit from the 70s reinvented as cumbia, morphing cleverly and almost imperceptibly into a bouncy tropical rock groove. Then they went back to a swaying, hip-tugging slink with an enigmatically anthemic number that hit a big peak as the organ grew smokier while the horns traded riffs with Castellanos, the dancers gathered at the front of the room taking his advice to get down and have some fun.

By now the place was packed, and it was hot: “It’s like Tucson up here!” Castellanos said drily. The band responded with another number that paired purposeful, punchy horns against a lurid, organ-fueled backdrop. Considering how psychedelic the band’s music is, it’s amazing how tight they are: throughout the show, solos were short and concise, and the band kept the unstoppable sway going throughout a big percussion break – Saul Perez on congas and Casey Hadland on drums – into the next tune. Their Spanish lyrics turned out to be much the same, entreating the dancers to do their thing, encouraging global unity and late in the set, sending a shout-out to a popular Tucson community activist. The organist switched to accordion for that one.

The night’s best number was an instrumental that mingled hi-de-ho blues and dark dub reggae into a cumbia….or it might have been a minor-key party anthem a little later on, where Castellanos shifted through his pedalboard and switched out the ice for various degrees of heat, finally taking it out with a wild volley of tremolo-picking. Then the band moved toward ska and then back to the tropical rock – and then an eerily bouncing, modal Ethiopian tune!.

And for what it’s worth, this group draws a really goodlooking crowd. As sadly as this neighborhood has been whitewashed over the years, it was encouraging to see pretty much every New York demographic dancing and reveling in the fact that this is still a multicultural city.