Joe Bataan: Subway Joe
From Subway Joe (Fania, 1968). Also available on Latin Funk Brother.

Joe Bataan: Ordinary Guy
From Gypsy Woman (Fania, 1967). Also available on Young, Gifted and Brown.

Joe Bataan: Call My Name
From Call My Name (Vampi Soul, 2004)

Over on my pop/politics blog, Poplicks, I’ve been neck-deep in the social, political issues raised by the Hurriance Katrina in New Orleans. I admit, it’s been emotionally and intellectually exhausting, and at times, a little despairing.

That’s why I’m really glad Joe Bataan came to town this weekend to play what was really and amazing, amazing show at Herbst Theater in S.F. It wasn’t sold out but it felt like a capacity show and it wasn’t just that the music was soul-satisfying and rousing (which it was). It was also that Bataan has incredible presence as a performer and as my friend who went with me put it: “he’s like your uncle. He just makes you feel like family,” and the rest of the audience clearly agreed. I’m used to hip-hop shows where everyone is mad stand-offish at times, including the performer, but here, Bataan went into the audience to hand out photos, to lead a conga line, to bring up a 12 year old girl, to kiss women and shake hands, etc. It’s not that he reinvented a stage show but rather, he knew exactly how to connect to the audience and brought it to us in a way that felt real, you know? That’s rare these days but at 62, with 40 years in the music business, Bataan knows how to make that real for you. It was, without doubt, one of the best live shows I’ve been to in years and I hope, as Bataan is back on the touring circuit, others go out and see him.

I could get into why I find Bataan’s music and career so special but I already do that in my story on Joe from this week’s SF Bay Guardian. The short version is that he’s had a really remarkable career and that he’s an undersung but pivotal innovator in music since the mid-1960s. I’ll be writing more about Joe in the future, don’t you worry. I was also honored to sit in on his rehearsals last night (that’s where the above photo comes from) and just see him work, up close and personal.

But ok, onto the songs. I start with one of his first big boogaloo hits, “Subway Joe,” off the Fania album by the same name. Bataan wasn’t the first boogaloo master – he followed in the footsteps of folks like Joe Cuba, Pete Rodriguez, and others – but what he brought into the genre was a real soulfulness that wasn’t always present in the more party-song style of other key boogaloo figures. You also was very much into storytelling and “Subway Joe” is a perfect example of such.

“Ordinary Guy,” has been Joe’s trademark for years – he’s recorded at least four versions of it, in different styles, over the years and it bespeaks his modesty and humility. It’s also a superb sweet soul song – a signature track that is a great entry point into appreciating how he really innovated the entire Latin Soul genre.

Last but not least, Joe disappeared from recording for about 20 years but when he came back to it, he really blew a lot of folks minds on his Call My Name album, released by Spain’s Vampi Soul and about to be put back out in U.S. rotation by Seattle’s Light in the Attic. Imagine Bataan singing over smartly produced funk and soul tracks that both nod to his legacy but give it a different twist and that’s what Call My Name is about. I personally really like the title track so I included it here.

Joe’s got another album due out by winter called The Message which is coming out on his own label, JoBa Records. Keep an eye out for it or just keep an eye here. I’ll certainly be talking about in the months to come.