As a rock-obsessed music writer, I rarely heap praise on bands that don’t rely on distortion pedals and towering amplifiers. So the fact that I’m rapidly becoming an admirer of an entity called Santa Fe & the Fat City Horns is causing me to challenge my own decades-long taste in music. Indeed, after a well-dressed gentleman raised his arm to part a velvet curtain, I entered the cozy, candlelit Lounge at the Palms, cold beer in hand, and experienced an immersive musical dream.
Led by singer/guitarist Jerry Lopez (who earned the nickname “Santa Fe” since he was born in that capital city of New Mexico), the band is a mix of all kinds of veteran players from every conceivable genre, making the result a true musical melting pot. You can hear the diverse influences in every song these guys dish onstage, from the easy, slippery funk of “Dat Greazy Thing” to the straight-up mid-tempo pop of “Indian Summer Day.” A large, powerhouse team of musicians—five singers, a six-piece rhythm section and six horns—enhances the material with each note.
Sound like an immense group? That’s the aim. The members all have regular gigs with productions on the Strip, from The Lion King to Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular to Jersey Boys. But on Mondays they gather at the Palms to blow everyone else away. With a 50/50 set of startlingly good originals and familiar yet fierce covers, they do exactly that.
Incredibly, the band has existed in one incarnation or another in Las Vegas for more than 30 years. But you won’t find many clippings about Santa Fe online and in old newspapers. That’s because Santa Fe & the Fat City Horns is largely a word-of-mouth ensemble intended for people who are really into music and are looking for a band that takes the idea of a Las Vegas lounge ensemble into outlandishly muscular territory.
“We found that there’s a large demographic of people out there who are ‘unserved’ musically,” says Lopez, who moved to Las Vegas in 1975 and more recently performed as Ricky Martin’s lead guitarist on tour. “Today’s music doesn’t appeal to many of us, and a lot of us grew up in an era when bands like Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Average White Band, Ohio Players, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Tower of Power were creating and recording the music that underscored our lives.”
It’s no surprise that not-so-long-ago era of great songs, sharp arrangements, killer vocals and disciplined musicianship is what Santa Fe strives to emulate, if not surpass.
Still, this isn’t a retro act taking a formulaic path or trying to be a tribute band, insists Lopez. He and the band want to make the music that makes them and the audience feel good, and to administer musical medicine to the soul.
“This is the reason we call our Monday nights ‘healing sessions,’” he adds.