Originally published on October 20, 2010
October 15th at the Warfield, San Francisco
Like many of my peers in the United States, I was first introduced to the music of Manu Chao in high school Spanish class. Unlike other failed attempts by our teacher to get students overly excited about the Spanish language, the class was very interested in the artist’s work and personal history. However, who wouldn’t be impressed by a guy that sings such a diverse array of songs in over six languages and founded one of the forefront French punk rock bands, Manu Negra? Chao was raised in France by Spanish refugee parents, where he cultivated a deep interest in world cultures and political activism. Because of his mass appeal in Europe and Latin America, Chao tours in those areas more often than in North America, where he has never had mainstream success. I was excited to finally be able to experience a Manu Chao show this past weekend.
I arrived at the Warfield last Friday night just as Manu Chao took the stage. Loud cheering erupted from a very excited audience as the band jumped into their performance. Chao, along with two members of his band, the Radio Bemba Sound System, started their set with a few mellow tunes of flamenco guitar strumming complemented by Spanish lyrics. People swayed to Chao’s rhythmic chords and the intricate solos of lead guitarist Madjid Fahem. The first song that the crowd really got into was “Clandestino”, one of Chao’s first singles off his debut album that depicts the struggles of illegal immigrants in foreign lands without documentation. The chorus of voices from the audience was a beautiful accompaniment to Manu Chao’s singing and the warm acoustic upbeats that flowed from his guitar.
After easing into their performance with the first few laid back songs, the band switched into a higher gear. As the opening chords of “Me Gustas Tú” came through the speakers, the crowd cheered enthusiastically, and a call-and-response session ensued between the band and their fans. People threw their fists in unison with their chant of “Me gustas tú” back at Manu Chao. A strong energy was building that spread from the very front of the dance floor up to the balcony, where a Chilean flag had been draped over the ledge by a patriotic fan. Fahem traded his acoustic guitar with a roadie for an electric one, which signaled the start of the more boisterous section of Manu Chao’s set.
Many subsequent songs started off with reggae beats and progressed into a breakdown of frenzied punk rock drumming and power chords. Chao continuously increased the energy of every new song with these powerful progressions and his own acrobatic stage presence. People were crowd surfing and up to the front to dive off the stage right back into the welcome arms of the mayhem below. It was interesting to listen to how the band would start off songs with a chilled out groove, ramp it up to a full on manic mosh session, and then bring it back around to its original melodious vibe. The best example of the band’s song morphing technique was when they performed a medley of songs that included their well known track “Bongo Bong.” On the album Clandestino where it is recorded, it is a curious and intricate song with a bouncy keyboard track intermixed with sporadic guitar notes. However, the live version turned into an anthem that seemed more appropriate to play to a crowd of diehard soccer fans getting ready for a championship World Cup match. The medley progressed into a chant very similar to the traditional “Ole, Ole” sports anthem that the crowd readily embraced and sang over and over again.
After the band’s last song, they exited the stage, but the relentless cheering of the audience called them back out for two encores. They played a well executed cover of Bob Marley’s “Iron Lion Zion”, perhaps causing people to consider similarities between the two iconic and internationally loved musicians. Chao closed out the night as he stood alone on stage and thumped the mic over his heart, setting a strong beat as the audience continued to sing the chant that Chao had introduced earlier in the night. It was a strong way to end the concert, and people continued the mantra out in the streets as they left the venue, an overall sense of camaraderie enveloping the concertgoers. I was happy to have seen such a high-energy performance and the positive effect it had on the crowd. It was definitely obvious why Manu Chao is adored by many different world audiences, as his musical passion fuels their raw energy and excitement.