Robert Gastelum, a 24-year-old trumpeter from St. Helena, has played with some pretty big names during his young career, including Jorge Santana and Little Joe and the Familia.
But he had never faced an audience as wild with excitement as he did at the Warfield in San Francisco Jan. 24, when Gastelum found himself on stage with maestro Carlos Santana as an army of photographers rushed the stage amid roof-raising cheers from the crowd.
As it happened, neither musician had his instrument in hand: Santana was making a surprise speaking appearance to honor five Bay Area women for their contributions to Latin rock, while Gastelum — who had started the evening playing music for tips in the theater lobby — was carrying a massive bouquet of roses.
But that didn’t diminish the impact of the moment for Gastelum, who had never seen the pioneering guitarist in person.
“I was kind of star-struck a little bit,” he said. “I had never seen him in the flesh. Wow.”
After a while, though, as Santana delivered his remarks from index cards, Gastelum began to relax, thinking “he’s a musician, and so am I: We have something in common.”
Not only did Gastelum share the stage with the artist whose early hit albums opened the way for Latin rock to thrive in the 1970s, the Napa Valley native had insider status at the fifth annual “Voices of Latin Rock” benefit for autism awareness that night.
Also in the audience were his parents, Bobby and Irene, and other members of the musical Gastelum family, including aunts Tina and Veronica. Long-time fans of the groups topping the bill, War, Azteca and El Chicano, the older Gastelums — whose own group is called 707 — beamed with delight as the bands they have loved for decades took the stage.
“Growing up here in the valley, going to school here in the valley, I grew up with the music,” said Veronica Gastelum, who sings with 707. “And my brothers — we all grew up listening to their music, and I feel like it inspired them.”
El Chicano, whose original members have been playing together since the 1960s, was the first Mexican-American group to play the fabled Apollo Theater in Harlem nearly 40 years ago. With three percussionists — including 48-year-old Napa resident Marcos Reyes, who also plays with War — and organist Bobby Espinoza, their groove was instantaneous and irresistible as they thrilled the Warfield audience with their early hits “Tell Her She’s Lovely” and Van Morrison’s “Brown-eyed Girl.”
More musicians came out to play during the Voices of Latin Rock Revue segment, with percussionist Karl Perazzo presiding as original Malo members Gabriel Manzo and Arcelio Garcia, with Garcia’s son Octavio, romped through “Bailar y bugalu” and the massive radio hit “Suavecito,” with the younger Garcia singing the lead originated by songwriter Richard Bean (who sang it for the Napa audience at last year’s Lincoln show).
East Bay singer Lydia Pense, of the longtime group Cold Blood, showed her blues roots in a passionately soulful guest appearance before returning to the stage to accept her honor as a “woman in Latin Rock.”
Also accepting the honor from Santana were singers Linda Tillery and Wendy Haas, drummer Sheila E. and Rita Gentry, Santana’s executive assistant and formerly a longtime employee of the late rock impresario Bill Graham.
After Santana’s heartfelt remarks to the honorees, the concert continued with even more firepower on stage.
Azteca, initially a splinter group of former Santana band members, became a Bay Area sensation in the 1970s with its big sound that embraced both Latin rock and modern jazz. Co-founder Coke Escovedo died in 1986, but his 73-year-old brother, Pete, reassembled the band for a documentary film two years ago.
The Azteca line-up at the Warfield included Escovedo on timbales; his daughter, Sheila E., on drum kit and Victor Pantoja on congas, along with a tight four-man horn section and original vocalists Wendy Haas and Errol Knowles. Tillery also joined in on vocals.
Sheila E., famous for her percussion work with Prince and her 1984 hit “The Glamorous Life,” was a woman to watch on trap drums, playing with gusto and rock-solid timing.
Finally, to an ecstatic reception from the crowd, War arrived on stage and launched straight into the tick-tock rhythm and wah-wah guitar of “Cisco Kid.” Within a few notes, there was dancing in the balconies and on the theater floor as a sweetish, smoky odor reminiscent of the 1970s began to trickle through the air.
Frontman/organist Lonnie Jordan, 60, was a man in perpetual motion, cracking jokes and reminiscing just enough to move the show along. He sang “Spill the Wine,” which — with the lead vocal by Eric Burdon — was the group’s first chart hit, in 1970; he led a doo-wop harmony introduction to “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” and rocked out on a super-funky “Low Rider,” with solo space galore for every member of the band.
By the end of the night, the stage was crowded with people — that was Sly Stone drummer Greg Errico shaking a tambourine tossed to him by Reyes — and the audience was on its feet for War and all the other Latin rock pioneers.
“To this day, they haven’t lost their touch,” said Veronica Gastelum. “They sound just as good as they did back then.”
Her sister Tina agreed: “They don’t change,” she said. “Thirty-five years later they’re still playing music, and now they’re playing benefits.”
Proceeds from the Jan. 24 concert will benefit Bay Area schools that serve children with autism, according to organizer Dr. Bernie Gonzalez.