The heat is on
Trio Caliente celebrates new album at Germantown concert
Following Trio Caliente's final set of the evening, lead vocalist Deborah Benner smiles as she walks to her table.
"I'm not used to playing in a space that small," she says with a laugh.
Praline Bakery & Bistro in Bethesda is smaller than many of the venues the band plays. This is their regular Monday night gig. Usually, they perform on the restaurant's patio so people can dance, but November winds have forced the act inside.
It didn't dampen their enthusiasm. Benner, lead guitarist Amilcar Cruz and her husband, guitarist-vocalist Michael Bard, are all passionate about a style Bard calls gypsy rumba. Based in flamenco, the group adds dashes of bossa nova and salsa. For Bard, the appeal of the music is simple.
"It's the rhythm," he says. "I guess it's kind of like reggae. When you see how it affects people, it really makes them bounce to the music. It made me say, I want a piece of that.' I've learned jazz, classical and rock. [Flamenco] is a style that's very syncopated, but people can understand it."
It's the kind of music that requires a lot of energy, even if the audience consists of patrons enjoying steak and salmon. While Benner sings in Spanish, she waves at everyone who leaves the restaurant. She even gives two small children pairs of shakers to play with during a song.
This is what Trio Caliente has been doing for the past seven years. Bard had been playing in Washington-area clubs with Cruz when a club owner asked if they could bring in a singer. Bard suggested then-girlfriend Benner. The combination proved to be fruitful. Benner says their rehearsals easily slide into songwriting sessions.
"We'll get together, and somebody will come up with a melodic line," she explains. "Somebody else will come up with a lick or riff. At a rehearsal, Amilcar will start riffing on something, and I'll start improvising over it. Then it takes on a life of its own."
The group has an extensive repertoire of original tunes, but onstage, they are known to improvise. As Benner picks up percussion instruments, Cruz's fingers blur across his guitar strings. Even their name was made up on the spot. During their early days, someone asked Bard the name of the band. Without giving much thought, he responded with "Trio Caliente." The name stuck.
"If it was accurate, it would be Tres Caliente," notes Benner. "But because we're very Americanized and do pop-ish stuff, it kind of works the Trio being American and the Caliente being Spanish."
Both Cruz and Bard grew up listening to hard rock. Bard stepped into the Latin guitar scene after moving to Washington from Dayton, Ohio, in the mid-1990s. Cruz, the lone Hispanic member of the ensemble, learned from flamenco master Paco de Malaga. He says that Spanish guitar and metal aren't that different.
"There are a lot of similarities in the music," explains Cruz, a Wheaton native. "[You are] shredding guitar and you get to show off your chops and make a good living. You can't do that playing Slayer or Metallica. It's kind of a niche thing. There aren't too many people that do it."
Benner, on the other hand, comes from a more classical background. Her mezzo-soprano voice covers several languages including Portuguese and Italian, a skill she developed at the University of Virginia. She has also dabbled in musical theater and commercial jingles.
"I have a beefy, R&B voice because that's what I used to do," she says. "[Gypsy rumba] is a big voice sound, so it was kind of natural. I was like, I really like this flamenco sound.' So now, it's all I want to do."
All three take pride in the fact they earn a living playing shows and teaching. And they wave the corporate flag high. On their website, the bio section boasts a list of clients that includes Microsoft Latin America, Capital One Bank and Target. Taking advantage of living near the core of the Federal Government, Trio Caliente also has played events such as the swearing-in celebration of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. But they are not just a token Latin band that plays for big businesses. Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center are on their resume, too.
"Washington is such an international city that you would think there would be a lot more types of bands like this," Bard remarks. "It's a very small community, so we're very fortunate to carve that niche for ourselves."
On Saturday, the band will celebrate the release of their second album, "Oye Chica," with a concert at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown. Dancers of various styles will accompany the band on stage. They landed the gig before completing the album and used it as motivation to finish the tracks.
"We had a few things already written and some new things on the burner," Benner recalls. "And the BlackRock thing came in. We were like, We want people to know that this was really special.' It kind of revved us up."
As the last few customers pay their checks, Bard and Cruz start talking about football. Bard, a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, is basking in the glow of the team's recent upset of the mighty New England Patriots.
But the conversation drifts back to music. Jokes about selling out aside, it's clear the band members love what they do. When Benner and Bard spend time at their Bethesda home, it's hard for them to get their minds off music.
"We have shows we both watch, and I love football," says Bard. "But we always end up talking about new songs we want to write."
See Trio Caliente on Saturday at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $25. Call 240-912-1058 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org.