Happy wasn’t happy, but the joint still swung

Last Thursday was salsa night at Harlow’s, just as it’s usually salsa night every Thursday. You could tell that it was salsa night, not because there was a fine array of habañero, chipotle and jalapeño relishes, never mind that Harlow’s has nothing remotely resembling a salsa bar in its newly remodeled public area, but because of the slithering sounds booming over the club’s sound system, which motivated more than a few audience members to bump against one another on the club’s large dance floor.

You could recognize the music as salsa because of its non-squarish angularity and its tendency to lurch between tonic minor and dominant seventh chords, driven by the insistent thwack of timbales. And even if you didn’t know salsa from Grigor Samsa the cucaracha, you might have figured it out by the way the dancers were interacting with each other; they had that passionate water-boiling-over seriousness that’s more sensual than sexual—even some guy in red who looked like he’d gone trick-or-treating as Max Headroom this past Halloween and subsequently decided to stick with the costume.

So when Los Mocosos took the stage shortly before 10, singer/rapper/timbales player Manny Martinez, a veteran of such non-Fania All Stars acts as Psychefunkapus and Broun Fellinis, felt the need to address the crowd: “We are not a salsa band,” he said emphatically. “We are a Latin alternative band.”

Of course, Latin alternative can mean a number of things, from the mainstream alt-rock moves of Jaguares to the old-school hybrid funk of War, Santana and Tower of Power. (Check it out on the compilation CD Escena Alterlatina: The Future Sound in Español, which producer Josh Norek was giving away.) It was in the latter camp that the San Francisco-based Los Mocosos appeared to fall.

Unfortunately for them, the Thursday night salsa crowd at Harlow’s would have none of it. According to show promoter Brian McKenna, a number of people demanded their money back when Los Mocosos began to stray too far from a Tito Puente-approved playlist. When the band played a song in the middle of its first set that was so uncompromisingly salsa that it was named in tribute to Puente, the Duke Ellington of the genre, the dance floor was packed and seething. But when Los Mocosos elected to play its version of Eric Burdon & War’s “Spill the Wine,” or experiment with a fusion of ska and salsa—which sounds like it might be an abominable miscegenation, but it actually worked—the only seething was on the faces of disgruntled dancers, who’d shelled out good money and got dressed up to dance, only to be confronted with a really good low-rider funk band.

So when bass player Happy Sanchez stormed over to Norek and McKenna at the end of the first set—“You didn’t tell us you were booking us onto a salsa night!” he fumed at what, apparently, is the Latin-band equivalent to hiring a metal act to open for a puppet show—you kinda had to feel for the guy, whose band was great but deserves a more appropriate venue next time.