Live: Calle 13 Make The Wait Worth It At Irving Plaza
Calle 13 Irving Plaza Friday, May 6
Sure, they came onstage 45 minutes later than advertised, but the crowd was only a little grumpy about being kept waiting. (Those who booed and threw empty beer cans and plastic cups at Irving Plaza's hanging video screen every time a new song came over the PA were outnumbered by those who chanted "tre-ce, tre-ce, tre-ce" and waved giant Puerto Rican flags.) And within moments of their arrival on stage, Calle 13 had a nearly sold-out club in the palms of their hands.
Frontman Rene Perez Joglar ("Residente") has an onstage demeanor that's closer to Fela Kuti than a rapper. He declaims his lyrics in a forceful but crystal-clear voice, making every syllable count, and while he incites the crowd with sweeping arm gestures, bounding back and forth in gray track pants and a matching tank top (the latter of which he removed about two-thirds of the way through the main set), he's more intent on getting his message across than merely hosting a wild party. He's backed up by his sister, Ileana Cabra Joglar ("PG-13"), who not only sings the choruses of some songs (most notably "Pa'l Norte," from 2007's Residente o Visitante, and "Latinoamérica," which, in its studio version on the group's latest album Entren Los Que Quieran, is a sort of summit conference of awesome Latin women like Colombia's Totó la Momposina, Peru's Susana Baca and Brazil's Maria Rita) but also serves as his hypewoman, reciting lines along with him and dancing beside him throughout the set.
The band is led by the Joglars' half-brother, Eduardo Cabra Martínez ("Visitante"), who composes almost all the music for the albums and who played guitar, mandolin, keyboards, and melodica, as well as manning a laptop, during the set. The rest of the ensemble--guitar, bass, drums, two percussionists, and a three-piece horn section--was able to replicate and re-arrange the group's songs into a funky, soulful, intensely rhythmic sound that didn't mimic the album versions as much as synthesize their eclecticism into a unique and singular identity. More simplistic tracks like "Se Vale Tó-Tó," from their self-titled debut, sat comfortably alongside ambitious compositions like the psychedelically rocking "No Hay Nadie Como Tú" (originally recorded with Café Tacuba) from 2008's Los de Atras Vienen Conmigo, or the spaghetti Western-flavored "La Bala," from Entren Los Que Quieran. Even the jazzy ballad "Beso de Desayuno" came off well, giving the audience a short rest break after four aggressive, uptempo tracks in a row. And the sound quality was astonishingly clear, better than most shows at Irving Plaza--the stinging hard rock guitar and waves of percussion were perfectly balanced against the vocals, and when the horn players took solos, they sounded rich and full.
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Residente is currently recording English-language tracks for Calle 13's next album, so one might have expected a little bit of linguistic outreach. But not a word of English was spoken the entire night, and his thick Puerto Rican accent, which all but disappeared during his verses, made his between-song commentary difficult to decipher at times. It didn't seem to matter to the roughly 60% female crowd, though, who seemed as enraptured by his muscular physique as by his thoughtful, incisive lyrics. He brought one audience member onstage to dance with him during "Se Vale Tó-Tó," and she could be seen rapping every word as she danced. Calle 13 strike a fascinating balance--on record, they're hyperintelligent and musically exploratory, and live, they're a crack band putting on a disciplined and professional (if slightly tardy) show with none of the slackness that plagues live hip-hop and reggaeton.
Set list: Baile de los Pobres No Hay Nadie Como Tú Vamos a Portarnos Mal Ven y Critícame Beso de Desayuno Se Vale Tó-Tó La Hormiga Brava La Bala Pa'l Norte Suave/Chulín Chulín Chunfly Cumbia de los Aburridos La Perla Todo Se Mueve Tango del Pecado Atrévete-te-te -- Calma Pueblo Latinoamérica Fiesta de los Locos
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