For a special club appearance to help Ricky Martin usher in Sound Loaded, his second English-language album, New York City’s Irving Plaza was as packed as the posterior of Ricky’s trousers. If there’s been any ebb in Martin’s star-power in the year-and-a-half since his eponymous English-language debut, it certainly wasn’t evident this particular evening.
Martin is a master of the moment, as his single-song Grammy appearances attest. His five-song set at Irving, backed by a powerhouse ensemble (which included a seven-piece band, three-piece horn section and two backing vocalists) was that sketch on a broader canvas; something of an extended musical sugar rush. A handful of tele-performances (including the madhouse scene in Rockefeller Center, when Martin played The Today Show) in support of Ricky Martin, found Ricky’s vocal chops a bit thin. It must have been road wear, because this night he was in fine voice. But of course, voice is only a small bite of the bon bon.
With nary a ballad in sight, Martin seems acutely aware of his strengths as a performer. Marc Anthony will always own bragging rights on that particular format. And that contrast should hopefully put to rest comparisons between the two singers. Anthony is a fragile flower of a performer. His vulnerability makes him the heartthrob one most wants to coddle. Martin, on the other hand, is solid as a rock. He’s the guy you want in a snapshot with you — the one you show off to slackjawed friends. His chiseled features are so picture-perfect that photos of Martin can suck the personality out of him. Thus he shakes his bon bon. He swivels, he pivots, he shakes, he shimmies, he grins, he twitches and myriad other gestures and movements. And he’s really fucking good at it. If the kids swoon for Anthony, they bleat like lambs at the slaughterhouse for Martin. It can be a bit much to take in: being a guy at a Martin show must be akin to the feeling Charlton Heston had among Dr. Zauis and his simian brethren. Stranger in a strange land indeed.
But it’s also a live scene that rivals most any in rock & roll history for the sheer visceral, visual excitement that Martin can stir. When Martin and his band hit a groove (which was often this particular night) there’s a whole lotta shaking booty; more booty than Blackbeard’s hull. It’s due in part to Martin’s band, who know how to brew a funky groove, but it’s also the sight of Martin’s bizarre fusion of ass-shake and pirouette while decked out in a black shirt/jacket with an upturned collar that hearkened another hip-swiveler in Jailhouse Rock.
Oh yeah . . . the music. The new material fared quite well. “She Bangs” might not have caused the same pre-release tidal wave of Latin pop frenzy that “Livin’ La Vida Loca” did two summers ago, but it’s a worthy brass-n-guitar-driven successor, with a wicked stop-time that serves as something of a calm before another wave of the chorus storms into the mix. Likewise, “Loaded” and “Amor” serve up an irresistible slice of fat-ass bass lines, with wailing brass and roaring backing vox.
And three songs in, Ricky decided to put the new album on hold for a moment and reach for yesterday’s cup. Even three years after knocking ’em dead at the Grammy Awards, “Cup of Life” is still a live dynamo. The tune exudes a cultural exuberance that (hopefully) will keep it from being relegated to the scrap-heap of good-anthems-gone-bad via arena apathy, a la the Queen stadium duology (“We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions”) and “Rock & Roll, Part Two.” With its waving arms and call and responses, it’s a natural to be sucked into sport (it was, after all, initially a World Cup anthem), but it’s worthy of protection.
“Let’s go back in time,” Martin teased by way of introducing the set-closing “Maria” (from 1995’s A Medio Vivir), “but not ‘Vida Loca.'” It was a bold choice, seeing as his audience was never placed below a simmer at any point during the evening; dropping “La Vida Loca” might have been dangerous. And for those who think that song defined Martin’s brand of fiery Latin pop, “Maria” is a terrific reminder that he was a superstar long before he began to record en Ingles. After Martin’s work was done, and after an extended instrumental outro, the crowd seemed sated, if not exhausted. It was a mere five songs, but relentless in its energy.
We’ll have to wait until next week to see if Ricky Martin’s first week of sales (the yardstick for measuring success these days) matches the hysteria of his popularity surge last year. But his was an audience as thrilled by his work of today as it was of the songs from yesteryear. “La Vida Loca” is an albatross he can deal with at a later date. Martin’s catalog has an energy to it that goes beyond the notion of hits; it’s about riding his wave, and, for the time being, it doesn’t seem that anyone (at least not in New York) is searching for a beach with bigger swells. And as the 900 or so in attendance left, there was no feeling that the absence of “La Vida Loca,” was akin to getting salt-water up one’s nose. And whether or not Martin becomes the Latin equivalent of Tommy Tutone is irrelevant. (He’s already triumphed over flash-in-the-pandom after Menudo). Martin is more than a singer — the sonic and visual components of the package need be considered together, as Martin is best seen as well as heard. “Sound loaded” really just touches on his cultural appeal.