One of the perks about reviewing gigs is occasionally getting to access otherwise off-limits places, such as the hallowed VIP bar. But one glance at the deserted Brixton Academy’s VIP section and I was wondering where everyone had gone. Looking down at the auditorium through a thick sheet of Perspex answered my question – VIPs and ordinaries alike, they were all down there, having fun with Manu Chao. Not wanting to miss out on the action I made it down into the crowd sharpish.
Manu Chao is an international superstar, highly revered by all and sundry – that is apart from the English-speaking countries, who apparently just don’t get him. While his latest album, La Radiolina, is riding high in Europe, we’re still worshiping the false idols of James Blunt and KT Tunstall, so the theory goes. The majority of the sell-out crowd at this opening night of his Academy residency reflected his global appeal. The larger than usual mosh pit underlined what stiff-lipped Brits have been missing.
Chao and his band were playing their hearts out. His songs rarely transcend the three minute barrier so the performance had a breakneck pace throughout. His backing band seemed to be having a whale of a time and the energy displayed was awesome. I couldn’t see any smoke effects, so it could easily be steam I saw rising from the players.
Chao’s recorded work draws on a myriad of influences, leading to suggestions he’s a one man WOMAD. The night’s live performance brought Chao’s Balkan influences to the foreground – something which was only hinted at on La Radiolina. Maybe he feels the likes of Gogol Bordello breathing down his neck a little?
But therein lay a problem. By emphasising the punkish aspects of his work, we missed out on a lot of the subtleties that make him loved by so many from his Esperanza days. Proof of this was when the opening’s furiously paced 10 track medley was followed by the more sublime reggae influenced likes of Clandestino. The change of gear worked perfectly, but such changes were later few and far between. On record his songs are playful, subtle and cool but at this gig they were just plain loud. As a result it was very difficult to hear the vocals of the man himself. Thus there was a lack of connection.
The gig was not without its moments but the all-out approach rendered some songs like the minimalist cool of Bongo Bong virtually unrecognisable – we were halfway through it before I realised what he was singing. And aside from a few masterful solos the whole thing felt like it had been poorly sound checked. Ultimately, for all the energy and atmosphere generated, the lack of attention to these details didn’t suggest a genius in our midst. We needed less repetition and a more evenly paced sound.
It was difficult to leave Brixton without a sense of disappointment. Hopefully this was a case of first night jitters, for even though the lively crowd was moving to the beats, I still felt like I was in that VIP bar with a Perspex barrier in the way.