In February 2007, Austin band Grupo Fantasma served as Prince’s backing band at a pre-Super Bowl party in Miami. Here was Michael Corcoran’s American-Statesman report:
You can’t have a fairy tale without a Prince, and in this one the kissed frog is an Austin band called Grupo Fantasma.
Once upon a time — Friday night on Miami’s South Beach, to be exact — the powerhouse cumbia-funk band backed the artist currently known as Prince at a pre-Super Bowl party for CBS affiliates.
The pint-sized musical giant, who’ll perform at halftime of the Super Bowl today, joined the 11-member Grupo on its song “Chocolate, ” sang one of his newer songs and then led a 20-minute jam on Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” that had the lucky 500 guests dancing wildly.
This happened without Prince and the band ever rehearsing, as the notoriously spontaneous Minneapolis megastar merely sent Fantasma a disc of songs he’d possibly do, and the band members worked them up in their chilly St. Elmo Road rehearsal space. From South Austin to South Beach, with funk.
In the past 2 1/2 months, Grupo Fantasma, which formed in Austin in 1999 (coincidentally, a Prince LP title), has become a Prince pet. His Purple Majesty not only flies the band to Las Vegas every Thursday to play his 3121 nightclub, he brought it along as the house band at his Golden Globes party Jan. 15. Prince almost never has an opening act, but he put Grupo on the bill at his concert Wednesday near Miami.
“It’s really a trip, ” guitarist Adrian Quesada said. “We were all thrilled just to see him in the audience (at 3121, which is in the Rio hotel and casino), but to play with one of your idols . . . that just blows us away.”
How does something like this happen — a band with three albums that have sold a combined 18,000 copies and that still tours by van — becomes the current go-to band of one of music’s greatest icons?
The big wheel of fortune started rolling when band manager Mike Crowley sent a copy of “Grupo Fantasma Comes Alive, ” recorded live at Antone’s for $500, to Prince’s promoter, Paul Gongaware. The two have been friends since the ’70s, when they worked at Concerts West in Seattle. Gongaware passed the CD on to Prince, who was looking for groups to play Latin Night at his club.
“When Mike told us that Prince was going to listen to our record, we were like, ‘Yeah, right, ’ ’’ said Quesada, a native of Laredo, like four other original Grupo members.
But Crowley got a call three days later, telling him that Prince liked the record and wanted the band in Vegas to play Thanksgiving, when the regular band couldn’t make it.
With a Spanish song on his most recent album, Prince’s ever-expanding musical palette has been embracing more Latin sounds of late. And he’s a longtime fan of the Earth Wind & Fire/Tower of Power big horn funk sound that Fantasma has perfected since it formed eight years ago as a spinoff of two Austin bands with Laredo ties.
At the first gig at 3121, Grupo members were energized to see Prince dancing at the side of the stage. The next day, Gongaware called to say Prince was so impressed that he was offering them the Thursday gig in Las Vegas for the remainder of 3121’s limited run, which is expected to end in March.
Prince’s guitar is always there behind the amps, always in tune, ready for him to join the jam whenever the spirit takes him. But during Grupo’s first six Thursdays at 3121, Prince remained a spectator. The band members had not even met him.
Then, during a set Jan. 11, Prince stepped out of the shadows, asked “Is it cool?” and strapped on the ax for a Jimi Hendrix-like flight. After only a minute, Prince put down the guitar and disappeared in the wings.
Apparently, Fantasma passed the audition, because Crowley got a message a couple of days later: Get Grupo to Los Angeles within 24 hours. About all the band knew was that it had something to do with a Golden Globes party.
In Los Angeles, the group was sent to the Presidential Suite of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where drums and amps and mics were placed in a corner.
Another band might’ve been deflated by the cramped, stageless setup, but the Fantasma members were jazzed.
“This is our bread and butter, ” Quesada said to his bandmates at the sound check. Grupo Fantasma was born playing house parties, with all 11 players tucked into a corner while dancers dodged the horns.
Then Prince walked in. He thanked the band for coming on such short notice and asked whether they knew certain songs.
“You hear all these stories about how (shy and reclusive) Prince is, but he was just a nice, genuine guy, ” Quesada said. After a few minutes of shop talk, it started to dawn on the band members that they’d be backing Prince that night.
“We didn’t have time to be nervous, ” Quesada said.
Prince’s Golden Globes party was one for the ages, with Marc Anthony singing a couple of 1960s salsa standards (with wife Jennifer Lopez dancing right in front), plus Mary J. Blige and will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas also sitting in with Prince and Grupo Fantasma.
Crowley said the band has taken its lucky break in stride.
“Nobody is under the delusion that we’ve got it made now, ” he said.
This is a humble, hardworking band enjoying their time in the purple limelight for what it is. Whether Prince is simply going through a Latin-funk phase before moving on to his next musical fixation has no bearing on all the fun Fantasma is having now.
Thursday has become Grupo Fantasma’s favorite day of the week, with anticipation starting to creep in Wednesday afternoon. The band members have been known to play past 3 a.m. at their 3121 gig. Then they pack up and head home on a 6 a.m. flight back to reality.
“We’ve had some dead nights up there” in Las Vegas, Quesada said, “but even when the crowd’s not happening, we’re still playing for Prince.”