Boston Globe


An evening of surprises with Manu Chao

Maybe the woman filing out of Avalon Sunday night didn’t quite understand what had just happened inside. « I don’t know if he’s trying to start a punk band or what, » she said with obvious frustation.

Clearly, she owns just one (if any) of Manu Chao’s albums. But then, it’s also easy to get the wrong idea about this French-born singer-songwriter who has ignited a fervent following much like the timeless musicians who have influenced him, Bob Marley and the Clash chief among them.

Manu Chao is a punk musician, starting with his roots in Mano Negra, the seminal hard-rock band he formed in the late-’80s. Yet he’s also everything else you can’t fit neatly into a single category. He’s the « Other » box you’d check for genre: Latin rocker, reggae crooner, tender balladeer, hip-hop beatmaster — singing in Spanish, French, English, and Portuguese (often just on one song).

Already beloved in Europe and Latin America, the 46-year-old Chao is now making serious inroads into the US market, in advance of a new album in September. His Boston gig was a major event, selling out more than a month ago.

Avalon was a snug fit for a show of epic proportions (and duration: 25-plus songs in a little more than two exhausting hours). You can’t get too comfortable at a Manu Chao show. He doesn’t allow it. As soon as you settle into the easygoing reggae melody, the one-two pummel of drums careens the song into overdrive and into brawny punk-rock that flames out in a blaze. That explained the sea of fist-pumping young people who had to contend with crowd-surfing amid fans’ hoisted images of Che Guevara’s mug.

With a mix of hits (« Bongo Bong ») and Mano Negra classics (« Mala Vida »), it was an evening of surprises, too. He turned the boozy, horn-driven « Welcome to Tijuana, » which addresses illegal immigration, into a closing-time ballad on acoustic guitar against a backdrop of twinkling lights; « Clandestino » and « Desaparecido » got similarly stripped-down treatments.

He exhorted everyone « to be what you are » (« sean lo que sean »), which came with a slogan that also doubles as one of his album titles: « próxima estación: esperanza » (« next station: hope »).

Whether that idea is punk, reggae, or rock, who cares? You don’t need labels or genres with a message that clear and an audience so eager to embrace it.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.