Originally known as a reggaeton act, Calle 13 has significantly expanded on that dancehall-reggae-meets-hip-hop style since its 2005 debut. Early Friday at Galaxy Sports Bar and Grill, a Hyattsville strip-mall dance hall, the Puerto Rican duo took the stage with nine additional players, who were there to bring nuance to the music. Too bad nobody told the soundman.
Actually, the bass-chunky, reverb-heavy sound was most likely intentional. Calle 13 had plenty of time to tinker with the levels, since the group kept the audience waiting until almost 1 a.m. before starting. (The crowd had already thinned noticeably by the time the music began.) Close-cropped rapper Residente (Rene Perez Joglar) and pony-tailed musical director Visitante (Eduardo Jose Cabra Martinez, Joglar's stepbrother) began with "Baile de los Pobres'' ("Dance of the Poor''), which opened with sampled gypsy-style violin. But as soon as this prelude ended, the bass and drums began to throb, and the low end joined with Residente's murky vocals to crowd out the rest of the musicians. These included three percussionists, three horn players and the stepbrothers' sister, PG-13 (Ileana Cabra) on backing vocals.
The attack was punctuated by acid-rock guitar, Madness-style horn fanfares and percussion-section forays into such Latin-dance styles as cumbia and batacunda. But Calle 13 often sounded as if it were still a twosome. Residente prowled the stage like a boxer, punching the air with his free hand as he barked the words; Visitante decorated the songs with guitar, keyboards, melodica, accordion and theremin, while their basic frameworks emanated from his laptop. PG-13 revealed the ability to sing on "Pa'l Norte'' ("To the North''), but most of her vocal parts were barely audible unison chants.
Residente's lyrics are known for political audacity and R-rated smirkiness, but both of those qualities vanished into the deep echo at Galaxy. Live, he and Visitante mostly sounded like a thorax-shaking dance-club act, not much different from the mainstream techno-pop purveyors whose tunes played during the hours fans waited for the show to commence. There was evidence of musical ambition in Calle 13's 90-minute set, but only around the edges.