Even with a stripped-down version of his crack backup band Radio Bemba, the French-Spanish world-music star Manu Chao was anything but mellow at last night's surprise concert at the Troubadour.
There were certainly some disarmingly lovely interludes, such as lead guitarist Madjid Fahem's intricate flamenco trilling at the start of the set or the way Chao decried the absurdity of borders on “Bienvenida a Tijuana” with a poignant, resigned yearning instead of predictable vitriol (“I wanna go to San Diego/I wanna go y no puedo”). But most of the time, the trio of Chao, Fahem and drummer Philippe Teboul (a.k.a. Garbancito) hammered everything out at breakneck speed. Haunting songs like “El Viento” and “Por el Suelo,” which were originally recorded as gentle ballads, were cranked up onstage to punk rock tempos.
Chao loves to mix and match, dropping familiar lyrics into new musical settings and shifting melodies in and out of other tracks to create dreamlike themes. Plus, he sings in numerous languages — including French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Galician — although he stuck mainly to Spanish and English on Tuesday. A typical atypical moment came when Chao inserted the rapid-fire rap of “Bongo Bongo” (a mutation of his old band Mano Negra's “King of Bongo”) into the middle of the hypnotic blurring of “La Primavera” and “Me Gustas Tú.”
Chao had a little bit of something for everyone at the Troubadour. For those who wanted protest music — such as the young man in the balcony waving an “ALTO ARIZONA” poster depicting that state's borders superimposed over a fingerprint — he gave them fiery ska-punk anthems like “Politik Kills” and “Machine Gun.” For those pogoing in the pit, he howled “El Hoyo,” with Garbancito kicking into a double-time overdrive. For stoners on the fringes, Chao and his mini-group dropped into spacy reggae grooves and chanted the Mano Negra rap “King Kong Five.” For those in despair, he offered up the soulful commiseration of “Mr. Bobby”: “Hey, Bobby Marley, sing something good to me/This world go crazy/It's an emergency.”
For starry-eyed lovers of romantic chansons … well, you were out of luck, as he didn't get around to many of his French love songs. Last night was more about loud guitars and shout-along choruses — storming the Bastille and worrying about life and love later.
Apart from last Sunday's appearance at the Smokeout Festival in San Bernardino, Chao hadn't played in the L.A. area since 2007, and there was a lot of pent-up excitement, especially to see him up close in a nightclub instead of a big theater or arena. Half the crowd pressed up against the stage and jumped up and down with nonstop delight, while the other half stood slack-jawed, in seemingly stunned silence and awe, taking cell phone photos all the while.
Manu Chao is sometimes labeled as a political musician, but at heart he's really more of a restless and inventive poet whose wanderlust have taken his music into some strange and yet eternally familiar places. On a night when it was “Rainin' in Paradize,” as Chao sang on his 2007 album, La Radiolina, he was able to connect the raindrops in such a way that Los Angeles didn't seem all that far removed from Baghdad, Jerusalem, Kinshasa, Barcelona and Tijuana.