Rubén Blades was the first important salsa performer to integrate rock aesthetics into his music. After a successful stint with Willie Colón, the Panamanian-born New Yorker went solo, rocketing to the top of the salsa charts with songs that avoided the music’s clichés in favor of topical narratives and carefully crafted imagery. The best of these, including the classic gangster tale, “Pedro Navaja,” are found on Blades’ Greatest Hits.
In 1984, Blades signed two contracts with Elektra, one for Spanish-language recordings, the other for English-language ones. Buscando America stands as the finest of his major-label recordings to date. His group, Seis del Solar, includes four percussionists and two electric keyboardists. Instead of salsa’s traditional horn section. Blades sings frank songs about abortion, Latin America’s political disappeared and the banality of evil.
Blades is also a screen actor. His first starring role was in Crossover Dreams, which charted the rise and fall of a salsero who denies his roots in search of American chart success. The soundtrack album includes two pop tunes by Blades, plus a healthy selection of salsa standards performed by some of the field’s finest players.
Escenas finds Blades making first steps towards the sort of crossover (he calls it “convergence”) acceptability he so obviously desires. Joe Jackson and Linda Ronstadt make guest appearances, but except for “Muévete,” things don’t sizzle quite so much as before. In an audacious experiment with tepid results, some of Blades’ songs on Agua de Luna were inspired by Gabriel García Marquez short stories.,/p>
Setting his band aside, Blades collaborated with Elvis Costello, Lou Reed and Sting on Nothing but the Truth, his first all-English album. Recorded with studio journeymen, the music ranges from hard-core salsa to mainstream rock to political doo-wop. The tunes co-written by Costello hold up the best, but that’s to be expected. Following that record, as if to atone for an apparent sell- out (sorry, “crossover”), Blades quickly rejoined the newly aligned five-man Son del Solar and made the rewardingly rootsy Antecedente.
The following year, with eleven musicians suavely mixing trombones, timbales, piano and synthesizer, Blades recorded a vibrant live album at New York’s Lone Star Roadhouse. Ignoring recent albums, the material (with the exception of “Pedro Navaja” and one other) is drawn entirely from Escenas and Buscando America.