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Columnist Garrett Wheeler dips into salsa.

By Garrett Wheeler

Pass the Salsa

Good news, folks—I think I found my musical calling, and it has nothing to do with loud guitars, double kick bass drums or Led Zeppelin. In fact, it's about as far away from the rock & roll freak-show as the Santa Cruz Chamber Orchestra. No, I'm not talking about classical music, or even jazz. I'm talking about most flavorful, passion-packed artistic endeavor ever created by man: salsa.

Why the sudden epiphany? I could easily lie and say I just returned from a monthlong trip to Latin America, where I discovered salsa music emanating from the depths of a small '50s-era club filled with beautiful women and old men playing dominos. But in reality, I was right here in Santa Cruz, across the street from a Toys "R" Us filled with married women and old men playing Nintendo Wii. Yep, Moe's Alley, home to more styles of music than a record shop in Amsterdam. It doesn't matter what kind of music you play, if you're good, Moe's Alley will sign you up. Guess that's why they booked the salsa players extraordinaire from Orchestra Gitano.

Bandleader and percussionist Bosco 'El Gitano' takes his salsa very seriously; call him an aficionado, if you will. The San Francisco native impeccably merges Puerto Rican and Cuban styles into a lovely blend of salsa that is muy caliente. The difference between the two sects of salsa lies mainly in percussion, with Puerto Rican salsa employing bonga and conga drums while its Cuban counterpart relies mainly on the trap drumset. I'm no expert (yet, that is) but the combination seemed wonderfully effective, with both percussionists wielding their drums with skillful authority.

Every member of the Orchestra exhibited instrumental prowess on a jaw-dropping level. Trumpet solos were clear and bright, and the trombonist never missed a note. Violin, piano, bass—all flawless. As if things couldn't get more impressive, the bassist made a switch to guitar halfway through the show and busted out intricate Santana-inspired licks like he was playing hot cross buns. The dozen or so couples that showed up to dance were happily rewarded with an amazing display of instrumental wizardry and stylistic flair. Though I've never been anywhere near the Cuban isle, I swear I could close my eyes and imagine I was in Havana.

Wednesday night at Moe's Alley was an entirely different story, with local blues band the Nitecreepers putting on a display of electric-blues rock reminiscent of the '60s renaissance led by guys like Clapton and Mike Bloomfield. Though no blues band has made a significant commercial impact since the late Stevie Ray Vaughan melted audiences with his red-hot guitar solos, legions of blues lovers undoubtedly congregate every weekend in garages across America to play those 12-bar standards till their fingers bleed. By the wide-grinned looks on their faces, the boys in the Nitecreepers are just six guys who love making music—and they're pretty damn good at it, too. Fender guitars played through old-school tube amps gave the players that warm, brilliant tone aficionados spend years perfecting, while keyboards and drums backed the improvised jams. As always, Moe's Alley was the place to be this week in Santa Cruz, from hot blues to cool salsa.

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