Philadelphia Inquirer, Dan DeLuca

Chao’s exercise in genre jumping

By Dan DeLuca

Inquirer Music Critic

Manu Chao did so much jumping up and down at the Electric Factory on Friday that you might have thought the stage was a trampoline.

It was quite a workout for the calves for Chao and his backup band, Radio Bemba Sound System. The music occasioned all that hopping, both onstage and among the enthusiastic half-jam band half-Latino crowd that packed the house to see the world’s only born-in-Spain raised-in-France multilingual punk-rock-rai-reggae-dub-salsa aerobic instructor rock-star rapper.

The 46-year-old Chao looked like a world music Bruce Springsteen impersonator, circa 1985, in stone-wash denim Capri pants and multicolored bandana. And at the Factory, the guitarist, whose full name is José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao and whose parents fled Francisco Franco’s fascist regime for Paris when he was a boy, displayed boundless energy for obliterating musical genre boundaries.

He might break into a Spanish-language rap over a flamenco guitar lick, pound his microphone to his heart or his head for percussive effect on « Que Pasa Que Pasa, » or transition from a Bob Marley roots rock reggae vibe into a punk shoutlalong straight out of the Ramones’ Road to Ruin.

Actually, Chao – whose studio album La Radiolina is due in September (the first single, « Rainin’ in Paradize, » is a free download at www.manuchao.net – relied too heavily on that latter tactic throughout the nearly two-hour show.

The hyperactive Radio Bemba ensemble, with a shirtless guitarist and bass player (and beatboxer) flanking their leader, were – impressively – musically malleable throughout. But Chao, who calls himself a « citizen of the moment » and sang in Spanish, English, French, and perhaps other languages, such as the African Wolof, in which he also is fluent, has a tendency to turn every down-tempo number into a double-time football chant rave up.

That strategy was plenty effective in inciting the crowd to pogo, fist-pump and crowd surf, whether Chao was singing about immigration issues, Argentine deseparecidos, or giving President Bush a big thumbs down while sounding out against « politicians who fight violence with violence. » But it had the not-so-salutary effect of overwhelming the individual character of Chao’s many distinct musical moves, until everything started to sound sort of the same.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, « In the Mix, »

at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.