Caught Manu Chau’s benefit concert for Celebrate Brooklyn last night. I’d never managed to see one of his live shows, though everyone who saw them raved about them. I always wondered to myself how the music on his two CDs — which tend to be pretty acoustic and light-sounding (I think there might be no drums on many tracks, for example) — would translate to big outdoor shows. The answer is — he doesn’t even try to translate the recorded sound. The live shows use the tunes on the recordings simply as raw material for extended jams (though every build and release was obviously worked out and incredibly well rehearsed.) Or maybe I should say, extended jam singular, as the songs segued into one another — more or less — and made the show resemble a set of DJ remixes of his own material — performed by a crack live band. Does any of this make sense?
Needless to say, the show was higher energy than the recordings might imply. The rhythms of many of his songs are similar — a sort of folky punky ska groove — and the chords tend to cycle around and around, so the catch phrases and hooks of one song almost invisibly merged easily into those of the next. The melodies became merely additional textural elements in a set that was one long groove, and the lyrics were often repetitive phrases that even those with limited language abilities could sing along to — “Que hora son mi Corazón?” These tunes reminded me of Woody Guthrie songs, simple catchy melodies that anyone can instantly access, with memorable slogans and phrases that are political (in the broadest sense) without being didactic. Maybe Woody Guthrie songs interpreted by the Clash in reggae mode, or maybe Woody via The Specials. You might even look at the whole show as one long piece — one extended “song” elaborately orchestrated, deconstructed and remixed.
The band entered rapidly one at a time — all of them with either shaved heads or buzz cuts, and most of them shirtless — a practicality in the summer heat, but also a look, obviously considered as a unifying device. Once Manu joined, with a shirt and hat on, and the singing began, the music practically never stopped — there were only very brief pauses now and then during which the audience applauded, but most of the time as soon as one song ended someone on stage was beginning the next one.
The audience was energetic and multinational — I saw a Mexican flag held aloft and the crowd was a handsome and sexy mix of African Americans, Anglos and Latinos — an enviable coming together of what are, in the U.S. at least, usually groups with very diverse tastes — maybe some of that is a testament to what he’s achieved and maybe it’s also reflective of Brooklyn. I overheard someone say it sold out quickly — which is notable for someone whose records were not the huge successes here as they were in Europe.
The fact that the audience didn’t care that the light sweet sound of the CDs was not being reproduced on stage struck me. As performers we’re torn between the two extremes of faithfully reproducing a recording — because those specific sounds, textures and arrangements are for many part and parcel of the song itself — and doing what Manu did, using the songs as a framework and a springboard for something different, new yet comfortably familiar. Keeping it fresh but still recognizable.
Easier to do if your songs are like his — repetitive phrases over chord cycles — but maybe here I’m just being jealous. Other kinds of songs can be deconstructed and re-presented in a new light as well. One needn’t go the Dylan route of rewriting the songs every performance — changing the basic rhythms and melodies until the songs are unrecognizable is a pretty extreme way of keeping it fresh and “authentic”.
I love Manu’s Clandestino record; as a fan I can’t help wishing that the intimate light sound of that recording was something that could be experienced live, but it wouldn’t work or be appropriate in a venue this size. That delicate sound would work in a living room, a porch, a small bar or club, but the legions of fans these records attracted would never fit or be accommodated in those venues. One might say the music adapted to the audience and the venues, as it always does. in this case there was also a history and experience of less intimate shows for Manu to draw on — shows with Mano Negra, his previous band, who were also hugely popular in Europe.