CHICAGO – Manu Chao at Congress Theater
Live review + photo gallery
The contrast between the huge worldwide popularity of Manu Chao and his low visibility in the English-speaking USA is astounding; his musical and cultural influence today is no less than Bob Marley’s once was, but many non-Latino listeners here have never heard of him. You have to wonder if it isn’t another sign of American cultural and political decline when an artist this vital can slip under the radar in the United States. Perhaps music this overtly political lacks appeal to a nation that has seen such a rocky decade. We’d rather share a giggle about Rebecca Black than hear a remarkable ode to the plight of illegal immigrants like “Clandestino,” judging from the YouTube views.
That’s not to say that a Manu Chao show isn’t about enjoying yourself. Chao may wear his politics on his sleeve, but this is not sober music. His most popular tunes include crowd-pleasing, druggy pop songs such as “Me Gustas Tu” and “Bongo Bong” (recently covered by Robbie Williams, who devilishly emphasized the sexy line “Hear me when I come” in his synth-heavy version). But “Clandestino” and “Welcome To Tijuana,” which both address the currently thorny issue of illegal immigration, are equally popular, and just as fun.
Onstage at the Congress Theater Tuesday night, Chao made a rare Chicago appearance (his last was at Aragon in 2007, he also played Lollapalooza in 2006) with a stripped-down band. Shirtless with an acoustic guitar, and flanked by only a drummer, bassist and electric guitarist, he ran through a sweaty, high-energy set. This vet of French new wave acts Hot Pants and Mano Negra makes restless music that’s equal parts the Clash and Latin street busker. He sings in Spanish, English, French, Italian and Portuguese, among other languages. There’s a certain amount of irony that this crusader against the consequences of globalization is arguably its most perfect product.
The restlessness of Manu Chao is best expressed by his unique habit of re-sampling his own work. “Bongo Bong” and “Je Ne T’aime Plus” feature identical music, but different lyrics in different languages, the former a goofy feel-good party tune in English, the latter a sad lament of lost love in French (with the refrain “je ne t’aime plus mon amour/je ne t’aime plus tous les jours,” or “I do not love you anymore my love/I don’t love you anymore everyday”). They work equally well, and they even work at the same time; the aforementioned Robbie Williams cover actually mashes the two songs together. Often during Chao’s set it was unclear what song he was actually playing, or unclear if it actually mattered. The tunes all seemed to blend together, and one had the impression that new juxtapositions of previous work were being brewed on the spot.
But every once in a while, Chao would pause to take a breath and then play one of his certified hits, such as “La Primavera,” with its cute meowing hook and lazy reggae rhythm. It sounded like a Police song from another universe, and the audience shouted along to the refrain “que hora son, mi corazon” (“what time is it, my heart?”) and got even more excited when some of the lyrics from “Me gustas tu” slipped in, as if they had fit there all along.
This show was very high on punk energy, with almost every song eventually switching to double-time and a shouted “hey hey hey.” The crowd ate it up, pogoing when necessary, or moshing (the entire floor of the Congress was a sweaty affair). By the time the third encore began (Chao was pulled back onstage by a rousing “Ole Ole” football chant), the bouncers gave up, allowing throngs of fans onstage as Chao screamed “You crazy, Chicago! You crazy, Chicago!” When they tried to separate the kids who were hugging Chao, they found themselves separating Chao from the kids, since he was hugging them back. His lyrics may be staunchly anti-American at times, but he once said, “I always criticize the government, not the people.” The people clearly love him for it.