Recording of November 1998: Los Super Seven

Radv/RCA Nashville 67689-2 (CD). 1998. Dan Goodman, exec. prod.; Steve Berlin, prod.; Dave McNair, eng.; Fred Rennert, Steve Gamberoni, asst. engs. AAD? TT: 41:36
Performance ****?
Sonics ****

Supergroups often turn out to be anything but. One notable exception was the Texas Tornados, a Tex-Mex quartet featuring Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers, that recorded three albums for Warner Bros. in the late '80s/early '90s.

Three of those...ah, inimitable personalities, are involved in this new and very wonderful US/Mexican border-music super-group project, which succeeds in mixing diverse talents and raising again the creative breezes that blew so steadily in the Tornados.

David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas (Los Lobos), Flaco Jimenez, Freddy Fender, Joe Ely, Rick Trevino, and Ruben Ramos are the principles in these sessions; Doug Sahm takes a turn at background vocals. The septet is supported instrumentally by such top players as accordionist Joel Guzman, bajo sexto player Max Baca, and the violins, trumpets, and voices of mariachi group Campanas De America.

Less a formal recording session than a friendly, make-it-look-easy jam session in which everyone gets a crack at singing lead, this disc, not surprisingly, has as its core a group of traditional Mexican folk songs sung in Spanish that have crossed the border and become a familiar part of the cultural life of La Frontera. Opening with "El Canoero" (arranged by the south Texas music pioneer Valerio Longoria), the set bounces back and forth between slower cancions and more upbeat rancheras. Like the Tornados' discs, there's even a polka, in this case Flaco's brother Santiago Jr.'s original "Margarita."

Freddy Fender's two contributions, "Piensa En Mi" (which, in another connection to tradition, uses an arrangement by the first female Tejano star, Lydia Mendoza) and "Un Lunes Por La Mañana," are both great old tunes, on which Fender digs in and comes up with top-notch vocals. And Ruben Ramos' soaring vocals on "Mi Ranchita" are undoubtedly this disc's vocal high point.

The wild card that gives this set an edge and keeps it from being a Tornados retread is the presence of the inestimable powers of Rosas and Hidalgo—key members of, in my unhumble opinion, one of the most restlessly creative and prodigously talented bands of any style currently alive on this planet. Both Rosas' traditional-sounding original, "Un Beso Al Viento," and Hidalgo's moody arrangement of the traditional "La Sirena," are highlights here. That pair and a third tune, the Rosas/Hidalgo original "Rio De Tanampa," sung in both English and Spanish and featuring vocal turns by Rick Trevino and Doug Sahm, could all fit nicely on any post-Kiko Los Lobos album.

Another curveball here is the only all-English tune, Woody Guthrie's "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," which is sung, appropriately, by the only anglo in the group of main players: the Lubbock, Texas-reared Joe Ely. Tinged with the same bordertown flavors that Ely has cultivated on his last two solo albums, this song and his performance of it are very natural parts of the proceedings.

For a big session like this, in which lots of people are playing and singing at once, the spaciousness and separation achieved by producer (and Los Lobos member) Steve Berlin are admirable, even if the dynamics can sometimes slip in and out of balance.

While border music is an acquired taste, this super session has so much heart, not to mention fine playing and singing, that it easily sails over any cultural or stylistic barriers.—Robert Baird