Manu Chao Proves Himself a Worldly Music Man

Polyglot singer delivers an energizing - if formulaic - performance at The Warfield.


Perhaps it was the dizzying array of vaguely deciphered multilingual lyrics and the rapid succession of reggae beats, acoustic homemade techno rhythms, and punk rock pounding. Or maybe it was the first-pumping revolutionary bravado and the random cast of groupies who intermittently materialized on stage and swiftly dove off it into the kinetic mass of people below. From whichever angle one chose to observe, Manu Chao's long ago sold-out performance at The Warfield Theater last Friday was - much like the artist himself - a frenetic display of sound and energy. Yet after all was said and done, it made for a downright entertaining show. It was a two-hour display of sweaty bare-bones performance and utter audience euphoria.

Given his characteristically robust, multi-dimensional sound, Chao is a surprisingly small man, his diminutive physical presence at times incongruous with the high decibels and energy level emitted on stage. Joined by just two band mates on electric guitar and drums, Chao, bare-chested, clutched a beaten acoustic guitar, and belted lyrics to global hits like "Bongo Bong" and "Clandestino." By now, those songs are veritable anthems. They've successfully seeped across cultures and are just as prevalent on the streets of Mexican slums as in American college dorm rooms. Absent in the low-fi performance were the sound mixes so ubiquitous on his album tracks, although he intermittently voiced the standard electronic drop noise that pops up on many of his songs.

Chao tours infrequently in the US, and this San Francisco performance was just one of four US shows on his short La Ventura tour. The rarity of his appearance added additional levels of stimulation to an already fully amped audience. Oft labeled a world citizen, Chao has rightfully earned his now legendary global rocker reputation. His music has come to symbolize uprising in a general sense, enhanced by his aggressive, leftist lyrics.. A dual French-Spanish national, the performer sings in no less than seven languages, at times switching unnoticed from one to another. He boasts a musical career of planetary wanderings that have brought him from his band's busker routes on Paris streets, to epic tours through the back roads of Latin America - including a tour on Columbia's dilapidated rail system on a train he and his purchased. His exceedingly unique musical style - a messy collage of random samples, Latin street music, collected sounds, rhythmic intonations, and calls-to-battle - is hard pin down. But the broad amalgam of sound has, at times, a hypnotic quality that's successfully transcended boundaries and borders.

Friday's show didn't emphasize the fine and broadly creative musicianship of which Chao is definitely capable - he's proven so on many albums. Most of the songs, in fact, were performed in a somewhat formulaic pattern, beginning with a simple rendition and culminating in basic punk rock beat, that had Chao predictably bouncing on the stage's edge, fist raised on the off-beat, with audience firmly in tow. The brilliant little nuances of his songs were often lost, although in the context, it didn't really matter. The air was electric and the audience devoured every beat.