Manu Chao and Radio Bemba Sound System, Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver- 5/25
From the first song of his sold-out show at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver,
it was clear that international superstar Manu Chao isnt content to perform the
ultra-chill, smooth Latin-Caribbean-reggae of his two hugely successful studio albums,
Clandestino and Proxima Estacion: Esperanza.
Rather, his much-anticipated show, a club date during his first extensive North
American tour was a frenzy of scathing ska and hard-hitting, tight reggae. The
group brought the energy through the roof and kept it there, inciting the crowd
to cheer them on to 6 (!) encores.
Manu Chao was a pioneer of Latin Alternative music in the 80s and 90s with his
group Mano Negra. Then in 1998 his debut solo album, Clandestino,
made him famous worldwide, even if stateside recognition came more slowly. The
album was written during his travels in South and Central America with future band
members. French by nationality, Manu Chao mostly sings in Spanish, but has songs
in Portuguese, French and English, such as his classic Bongo Bong. He regularly
sells out massive stadiums in Europe and South America. There was a lot of excitement
among Vancouvers large expatriate communities for the show, with scalpers selling
tickets for hundreds of dollars.
It began with the unreleased El Hoyo, a song that contains all the elements of
a live Manu Chao jam: Manus strong, melodic voice singing over bass-driven chord
progression borrowed from another of his songs, Machine Gun, which was played
later. The reggae beat built in intensity and then finally broke into up-tempo,
fist-pumping ska. The first half of the show featured many of his best-known songs
worked out in this way, including La Primavera and Mr. Bobby. Later in the
evening came long medleys and songs from his as-yet-untitled new album, due for
release in September.
The band for this tour is a slightly stripped-down version of the band with which
he recorded the live album Radio Bemba Sound System. There are
six members of this years Radio Bemba, with Manu on vocals and rhythm guitar, two
drummers, a keyboard player, and super-tight bass and lead guitar. Madjid Fahem,
the lead guitarist, hits the distortion for the ska sections of songs, but also
spent much time playing masterful flamenco guitar in songs like Clandestino and
Deseparacito. Gambeat on bass drives the group with bounce and groove, and during
the jam sections yelled into the crowd, chanting what sounded to me like Hesh!
Most noticeably absent were horns, but it was interesting to hear the spaciousness
of songs without them, such as the head-bopping The Monkey.
Crowds in Vancouver are often reserved and dont dance, but on this night the Commodore
went wild, with some moshing and the dance floor bouncing in time. The crowd was
definitely rewarded for their efforts, with an onslaught of high energy, quality
music for over two hours. This is a band to catch, a barely hidden gem of music
from overseas that, after this tour, will finally receive much-deserved North America-wide