Long before recording the first of over 70 albums and embarking on a career which spans five decades, Oscar D' Leon would keep his piercing and rangy voice in tone by welcoming passengers with snippets of Benny More songs as he maneuvered the steering wheel of a taxi cab.
On Saturday night D' Leon offered up the same joy ride of sorts while demonstrating his deeply-felt passion for traditional Cuban music is stronger than ever and ability to interject the same type of response in an audience isn't to far behind.
Despite being a tad over 60 the Venezuelan sonero displayed a youthful exuberance on stage with moves a teenager would envy and exhibited a vocal prowess that has no equal in his genre during a riveting and emotionally-charged 'Un Tributo a la Musica Cubana' inside the James L. Knight Center.
D' Leon certainly aimed to please the large throng of youngsters, old-timers and hipsters - mostly Cuban - that showed up, taking them through a soulful journey of some of Cuba's most adored classics such as La Orquestra Aragon's Sabrosona, Miguel Matamoro's Juramento and a medley of More's greatest hits including Francisco Guayabal and Castellano Que Bueno Baila Usted [performed with New Times 2006 Female Singer of the Year Aymee Nuviola].
Whether it was during a hair-raising rendition of Como Fue, a bolero that allowed for some romancing in the dark among the crowd, or an improvisational version of Lagrimas Negras [alongside local mainstay Malena Burke] D' Leon always appeared at ease and comfortable in his delivery.
Although not what he's known for D' Leon seemed genuinely wrapped in the Cuban music. He was even more entrenched in song and having a grand' old time while performing - and meshing as if they had done it a hundred times before - with the underrated Nuviola, who offers a combination of vocal versatility and exceptional stage bravado.
Though he's blessed with uncanny range and possesses a charisma that exudes confidence - he's still bouncing around the stage delivering choreographed leg kicks with band members while conducting them - D' Leon's greatest asset may be an ability to sing from the heart while transmitting joyful emotions among his supporters. [Even if he dedicated this go-around to all songs Cuban and neglected some of his own hits such as Lloraras and Mi Bajo Y Yo]
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But D' Leon had them in the palm of his hand - and on their feet - as he concluded the evening by paying homage to Celia Cruz with a ruffling and passionate rendition of Quimbara that had everybody dancing in the aisles.
Before his effortlessly and animated interpretation of perhaps La Guarachera's most revered hit D' Leon teased the crowd with a lyrical interlude of Bemba Colora' as the surrounding crowd begged him for more.
But judging by his most recent performance D' Leon apparently has plenty left. -- Fernando Ruano Jr.