Manu Chao brings power, poignancy to House of Blues

By Franklin Soults
Globe Correspondent / September 2, 2011

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Manu Chao is the rare kind of global pop star who can sing a repeated refrain like “politic kills/ politic need violence’’ while his audience dances in ecstatic abandon during a relentlessly upbeat encore, and somehow make it sound like he’s doing poignant justice to the words.

Given Chao’s ska-tinged groove and singsong melodies, it’s no wonder that his ability to musically triumph over grim subjects often draws comparison to Bob Marley. But during his two-hour-plus show at a sold-out House of Blues on Wednesday, the Spanish-born musician also recalled a less likely precursor, Bruce Springsteen. Just like the Boss, Chao delivered a message of hope to adoring fans, with sweat gleaming from his lean frame in a manic performance that refused to quit.

The difference is, Springsteen specializes in stories that speak directly to the particulars of his audience’s lives; Manu Chao seems to come from everywhere and sings about the feeling of belonging nowhere. His allusive lyrics string together pidgin catch phrases in English, French, and especially Spanish - “Je suis perdu,’’ “This feels like an emergency,’’ “Bienvenida, mi amor’’ - with a half-dozen other languages thrown in, too.

His deceptively simple-sounding music is likewise slyly disorienting. On his studio albums, songs often meld from one to the next, yet they’re also capable of switching direction abruptly and building elliptically. Haunting refrains disappear only to reemerge in later numbers with compounded force, as if part of a carefully structured symphony.

At the House of Blues, however, the heterogeneous crowd didn’t wait for the music to build, jumping into the groove the moment Chao and his three-piece band hit the stage. Singing back verses in Spanish as easily as in English, the audience mostly looked a decade or three younger than the very fit Manu Chao, who turned 50 this year. His equally trim backing band included guitarist Madjid Fahem, towering bassist Gambeat, and drummer Philippe Teboul.

A nonstop opening segment including reworked versions of “Mr. Bobby,’’ “Welcome to Tijuana,’’ “5 Razones,’’ and more, often with double-timed punk-rock sprints as codas, before Chao threw his acoustic guitar over his back for a few seconds’ breath.

The onslaught was consistently impressive, if occasionally numbing. Chao finally closed the show with “La Despedida’’ (“The Goodbye’’), in which band members left the stage one by one, only to all rush back before leaving again, one by one. Somehow, that was poignant, too.

Franklin Soults can be reached at


At: House of Blues, Wednesday