Reviewed by Nancy McKenzie Oliveri
According to its Facebook page, Salsa Libre, a Binghamton-based, eight-piece band with a Latin beat, was “formed in 1997 to give the Southern Tier spicy, sensual music for listening and dancing pleasure” The description continues that “the band has captured the sounds of the great Salsa, Mambo, and Merengue bands of Puerto Rico, Cuba and Santo Domingo,” prompting me to ask myself, “Where have I been?”
So last Saturday (Feb. 23), a couple of weeks after seeing more than one social media reference to the group, I decided to catch a performance at the Riverwalk Hotel and Conference Center in Binghamton. I wanted to get there in time for the last hour of the gig, and maybe, dance a little, too. I did both, enough to warm up on a cold night, and to say with certainty that I’ll go again when the band returns in March.
Robert Weinberger is Salsa Libre’s founder, but you can call him “Roberto” as he is listed on the band’s MySpace page. You’ll find him playing the timbales, guira, bells, keyboards, sax and flute, and he supplies some solid backup vocals, too.
Taze Yanick, who plays a cool guitar, has composed, with Weinberger, some original Latin jazz pieces, which are now part of the the band’s repertoire. Cover songs include No Me Llores Mas, Guantanamera and more.
According to lead vocalist, Thomas (or should I say, “Tomas”?) Egan, who graciously answered all my questions about the band, Salsa Libre is, at its core, a cover band, playing the greatest hits of the genre. Egan shakes some fine maracas, too.
He told me that the name, Salsa Libre, literally means free, as in liberated, Salsa. This is demonstrated in the heart-thumping cocktail of the band’s percussion and brass. And speaking of free, the Riverwalk does not require a cover charge, but you are invited by the band to visit the bar early and often. As Egan told the crowd of about 50 people, “the more you drink, the better we sound.” He didn’t have to worry about that. They are a solid, fun Latin octet, influenced by Roberto Roena, Hector Lavoe, Frankie Ruiz, Ruben Blades and El Gran Combo.
Joe Perkins is usually on bass, but Moises Donato is currently sitting in for him, which is great, because a Salsa band without a good bass player is like a fajita without, well, salsa!
You’ll find Freddy Mendoza on timbales, guira, bells, bongos and lead vocals, with David Perez on the congas and bongo drums, too. Dennis Martin and Victor Merrill flesh out the group on the all- important brass instruments of the Latin sound, the trombone and the trumpet, respectively.
The combination of the large dance floor in the Riverwalk’s cool, contemporary lounge, and the hot sounds of the band, made standing still almost impossible. Could I tell who, among the perpetually moving bodies on the floor, might have had Salsa lessons, and who hadn’t? Not really, except that, there were a number of people on the periphery of the dance floor practicing diligently with a partner.
Sidestepping these folks to get to the ladies’ room was challenging but even that was fun if timed just right. But as for dancing to the music in general, wait until they announce a song with a Merengue beat. Almost anyone can pick that up if they let the music dictate to their feet.
Those who really want to look like they know what they are doing, either in Salsa or the Cuban version, Rueda, can take lessons offered periodically at Danceworks Unlimited in Johnson City by dance instructors Emily and John Silvela, who were passing out flyers for their five-week session, which is offered periodically.
If you want to hear Salsa Libre, you can wait until they return to the Riverwalk in a few weeks, or you can find them at Brothers II in Endwell on a Sunday evening, also once a month. A $5 cover there includes a coupon for a future visit to the restaurant. The group also plays from time to time at the Lost Dog in Binghamton and have been invited to perform at a club in Ithaca, too (details to come).
It’s possible that this flurry of activity from the band has caught more than just me by surprise. In the decade and a half since Salsa Libre’s creation, there have been several years where the band may have only performed publicly once or twice a year. I, for one, am grateful that they’re out there now a lot more often than that, and building a great following.