CHICAGO – Manu Chao sets down an exuberant groove
September 15, 2011
Manu Chao stuck to the basics during the international star’s performance for an ecstatic, near-capacity crowd at the Congress Theatre Tuesday night. Leaving aside the flamenco guitar and clever sound effects that can fill his concerts, Chao and his three-man band kept bodies moving and voices soaring with jubilant mash-ups of punk and reggae during a two-hour concert, half of it a series of increasingly feverish encores.
Born in Paris to Spanish parents, the 50-year-old Chao has been mixing genres and languages in his music since the mid-1980s, winning a worldwide following. Although far from a household name in the U.S., he’s making inroads here, with his current American tour—part of a two-year global trek following his 2009 live record « Baionarena » —including Chao’s debut in a number of cities.
Bare-chested in clam-digger shorts, Chao could have been strolling a beach as he strummed lightly-skipping, Caribbean-inflected chords on his acoustic guitar. Frequently bouncing on the balls of his with age-defying exuberance, he called out in Spanish, French and English in a reedy voice, leading the crowd in singing along to his big, broad choruses. All together now: « Sexo Y Marihuana! »
Drawing on reggae and dub, Chao’s band added shimmering electric guitar leads, thick bass lines and booming kick drum echo on songs including « Mr. Bobby » and « A Cosa, » repeatedly turning on a dime to erupt into roaring buzzsaw chords and stampeding tempos.
It’s was a mix indebted to the Clash, which was most evident early during the encores, when Chao took a sharp turn to the left on the protest songs « Politik Kills » and « Rainin’ in Paradize » (« It’s an atrocity…no democracy…a U.S. country. »)
What was missing was the rich Spanish melodicism and whimsical playfulness that marks Chao’s infrequent records, and Chao’s energy couldn’t entirely overcome the repetitiveness of his groove-then-grind pattern.
If the music could have used more departures like the dreaminess Chao brought to « Mi Vida, » there was no denying the deep grooves of « Clandestino » and « Me Gustas Tu » or the celebratory fervor that had Chao pounding his microphone to his chest and forging a kind of universal language from the crowd’s chants of « Hey, hey, hey » and « Hoyoyoyo. »