When Juan de Marcos González left Cuban son revivalists Sierra Maestra in 1998 after two decades with them, it was in order to fry bigger fish as talent scout, arranger and tres player with Afro-Cuban All Stars and the Buena Vista Social Club. While many of the veterans who made up the latter group are no more, the band he co-founded are still soldiering on, with five original members appearing at their latest London show.
The frumpy acoustics and static lighting of The Dome in Tuffnell Park may be a far cry from Carnegie or the Royal Albert Hall, but its old-fashioned dance hall ambience somehow seems appropriate for Sierra Maestra's sturdy, no-frills take on Cuban son. The genre they set about rejuvenating in the late 1970s is an umbrella term for a wide range of folk styles that reached its zenith of popularity during the 1920s. In the 1960s, son became one of salsa's main ingredients, and the swivelling couples on The Dome's half-empty dance floor make that much clear as they wait for the band to arrive.
The question on many fans' lips is: have Sierra Maestra managed to find a suitable replacement for star vocalist José Antonio "Maceo" Rodríguez, who died in 2005? The answer is a resounding "yes". Like his predecessor, Jesús Bello is a small, effervescent man with a huge, brassy tenor voice and a guitar. With all the skill and charisma of a circus ringmaster, he lures the parts of the crowd who've stopped dancing. He shares the vocals with founder members Alberto "Virgilio" Valdés and Luis Barzaga. With five out of the nine men onstage playing percussion (congas, bongos, cowbell, güiro scraper, maracas and the ubiquitous clave rhythm on sticks), the melodies are largely carried by the three singers, the piquant trumpet of Yelfris Valdés Espinosa and Emilio Ramos' slithering workouts on tres – a small, chiming guitar with three pairs of strings.
The pulsing changüí "Juan Andres" (with Barzaga on lead vocals) is a promising new song, although marred slightly by an over-enthusiastic bongo solo from relative youngster Eduardo "Ñiquito" Rico. Old favourites include "No Me Llores Más", "Camina Como Chencha" and an extended take on "Mi Música Es Tu Música" (from the soundtrack to the French film Salsa).