Stereotypes can be insidious little devices formed to oppress entire races and religions. But some exist for a reason. They’re grounded, to some extent, in truth. Certain stereotypes about Hispanics — we’re loud, love to dance, etc. – crudely highlight a culture that is driven by passion. Saturday night, the Bank United Center in Coral Gables hosted an all-out party for the godfather of salsa Rubén Blades, and that same passion that people have come to associate with Spanish-speaking peoples was on display. Thank God for that.
The concert, which was really two shows in one featuring Victor Manuelle as the opener, was fun as hell and was a fitting farewell to Blades’ career in salsa.
Although the tour is titled Walking, Goodbye and Thank You, it is not the last we’ll see of the Panamanian actor, politician, and songwriter. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Blades shared a number of upcoming musical projects, including collaborations with Boca Livre from Brazil and Costa Rican group
This weekend’s celebration began a bit rocky. Despite the scheduled 8 p.m. show time, the sound check was still underway at 7:50, forcing thousands of fans to crowd the arena’s lobby and concession stands. Manuelle finally took the stage 45 minutes later armed with a 12-piece band, a sharp looking suit, and a charm that won over every heart in the audience. Manuelle, a force himself in the genre over the last 30 years, is Puerto Rican, and like many of his countrymen, he counts Blades as one of his own. In fact, with Blades’ influence across Latin America, regardless of the flags they waved at the show — Colombian, Puerto Rican, or Venezuelan — fans from across the Caribbean and South America can legitimately claim a piece of Blades and his legacy.
From the opening note, the festivities were as raucous as the crowd — the percussion section thumping in everyone’s chest, the piano soothing their souls, and the brass trio belting out hip-swinging rhythms. Every song had a video providing either lyrics or, in the case of “Si Tu Me Besas,” images of couples passionately kissing. Between the mournful trumpet solos, romantic ballads like “Tengo Ganas,” and a gentle song dedicated to the passing of his father who suffered from Alzheimer’s, Manuelle joked and told stories. He even took photos with dozens of fans, all from the stage, never halting the show's momentum.
As a way to honor those that came before him and to truly win over the mostly middle-aged crowd, Manuelle led an arenawide karaoke of songs dating back to the '70s. It was a perfect segue into the evening’s headliner.
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To say that Miami was good and lathered up by the time Blades took the stage is an understatement. Because it was a proper salsa concert, couples were in the aisles, in any available space really, dancing and twirling. One man damn near tumbled down the stairs, he was going so hard. Meanwhile, Blades wasted no time barreling through all his hits. It was more a necessity than anything. He went on around 10:45 p.m. knowing full well there was a midnight curfew, a cutoff he fully ignored.
The show went well past midnight, and it was apparent Blades cut nothing out, including a cover of Héctor Lavoe’s “El Cantante” and his own massive hit single, “Pedro Navaja.” Throughout, the 68-year-old showed that the same passion and vitality that powered his entire life and career have hardly waned. His voice boomed across the face of the venue, his Panamanian-themed maracas an extension of his own body.
Being the salsa-singing social and political activist that he is, Blades illustrated his ability to simultaneously set off a party and then bum everyone out with his penchant for bringing up heavy subjects in songs. The atrocities of war and the ugliness of domestic violence both got equal stage time, all while the beat continued. Nevertheless, as the vibe of the late night Latin jazz settled in and swathes of rainbow colors splashed across the Bank United Center, Blades closed the evening on a high note. If this was truly his last gig in Miami, it was an outstanding "goodbye and thank you” and a testament to everything that’s ever made him a great man, both in and out of the spotlight.