Manu Chao, The Forum , London
Reviewed by David Taylor
Monday, 5 January 2009
It’s testimony to the pulling power of Manu Chao that within hours of the announcement of two surprise UK December dates both had sold out.
Not bad for someone who has never had a British No 1 single or album, and whose first language isn’t English. But for those in the know, the chance to catch the boundless energy of the Barcelona-based singer live is an opportunity not to be missed.
Bang on 8.30pm Chao’s backing band Radio Bemba bound on to the stage. It’s a more stripped-down version of the personnel that played in Brixton just under a year ago but the Bemba backbone is thankfully all present and correct, led by Gambit, the larger-than- life bass player cum beat box, and Madjid, axeman extraordinaire.
Taking up positions either side of the stage, each acts as a cheerleader for one half of the audience, goading, strumming, gurning, mouthing the lyrics and generally hyping up the crowd.
All eyes are on Chao, however, as he enters stage left, bounces forward to grab the mic, salutes the crowd and launches into a full power version of « Panik Panik » that grabs you firmly by the cojones and refuses to give up until you are pogoing along. It sets the tempo for the gig. On record, Chao’s catchy blend of Spanish guitar, multilingual melodies and Space Invader samples can sometimes wash over you. It’s pleasant, foot-tapping, instantly hummable stuff. But live, his impassioned, politic punk-pop is given a new lease of life. The infectious tunes become revolutionary anthems that have the audience dancing and singing along. So what if we don’t understand every word of the lyrics? It’s the passion of the music that sets the Forum alight, as Chao repeatedly bangs the mic to his bare chest to simulate his beating heart.
Tracks from Clandestino, Proxima Estación: Esperanza and last year’s La Radiolina effortlessly blend into each other. The reggae bass of « Mr Bobby » has the crowd skanking away. A rockier version of « Politick Kills » is bookended by the Radio Bemba chorus before morphing into a version of « Welcome to Tijuana ».
When Madjid swaps his electric guitar for a Spanish one and the opening bars of « Clandestino » that define the Manu Chao sound ring out, the crowd goes even wilder. A trinity of tracks from his first album is completed with « Desaparecido » and « Mentira » before a gutsy version of « Raining in Paradize » from La Radiolina brings things bang up to date. With two encores and a non-stop set that lasts almost two hours, Chao and co certainly deliver.