PORT HARDY—Adonis Puentes took the Civic Centre stage Saturday night jauntily attired in a print shirt that might be found in his native Cuba, topped with a winter scarf more suitable for his adopted home on Canada’s West Coast.
The scarf didn’t even make it through the first number.
Puentes, backed by a four-man combo, heated up the winter evening with a pulsating set of Afro-Cuban classics and Latin rhythms in the North Island Concert Society’s second season event.
Nobody was hotter than Puentes himself, who broke a sweat — and doffed the scarf — midway through the rousing opening number and never let up through the evening.
The highlight for the audience of nearly 200 came when Puentes launched into a cover of the Santana hit Oye Como Va. His group turned the song into a 12-minute jam, during which Puentes coaxed everyone out of their seats for an impromptu lesson in the sinuous, swaying Cuban dance.
Puentes supported his own vocal work by chipping in on percussion, alternating between congas and the Cuban güiro. He had plenty of help keeping the beat, backed by fellow Cubanos Israel “Toto” Berriel on bongos and Oscar Soto on timbales. The group was rounded out by bassist Victor Garcia of Guatemala and pianist Pablo Cardenas, another Cuban native.
The configuration of the group — without the horns or guitars found on Puentes’s 2005 solo debut, Vida, necessarily left Cardenas to carry the lion’s share of solo and melody work during Puentes’s vocal breaks. The young keyboardist was up to the task, displaying a range that went beyond traditional latin by ranging into improvisational jazz, jazz-rock fusion and occasional snippets of classical styling.
The concert’s lone pitfall — it has tripped up other performers here but is fairly rare in NICS events — was an imperfect match between performance and audience.
Puentes seemed intent on turning the evening into a club-style dance party. Perhaps a dozen women did leave their chairs to boogie in the open area behind the seats, and the rest of the audience occasionally responded to Puentes’ exhortations to clap along with the rhythm.
But, aside from the rousing response to Oye Como Va and an entertaining interlude when a grinning Berriel raced out from behind his bongos to take the floor and coax women to dance with him in the aisle, the similarity in tempo and dynamics of the band’s sets created a sense that the audience was waiting for something else.
The makeup of the group Saturday in Port Hardy, essentially one big rhythm section, probably had a lot to do with the song selection.
Puentes comes from an accomplished musical family and will release his second album this spring. He has a wide range of material, including soulful ballads accompanied by nothing but his own acoustic guitar playing.
Saturday, though, the group broke out of its up-tempo groove only twice. It worked to great effect on the sublime Lágrimas Negras, featuring Cardenas’s feathery piano intro and the most nuanced showcase of Puentes’s rich voice.
In all, it was a tight set by players very good at what they do, and it gave the audience a window into the rhythm of Cuba. But that audience wasn’t up to kicking down the door and charging inside.
Puentes may have recognized that fact when he declined to bring the group back for an encore while fans applauded.
The next event on the NICS schedule is the annual dinner show, featuring the Gospel R&B, soul and blues of the Sojourners, Feb. 11. Visit www.niconcert.ca for ticket information.