Madison Square Garden
Saturday, October 16
Better Than: Anything you’ll hear at CMJ this week.
Vicente Fernández, the undisputed king of Mexican ranchera music, has a guy whose entire job is to keep his drink filled. Toward the back of the stage at his sold-out Madison Square Garden show Saturday night, there was a small table holding a white hand towel, a plastic cup of water, and a second plastic cup holding a sip or two of dark, amber liquid. At stage right, a man in a leather jacket kept an eagle eye on that second cup, and every time Fernández picked it up and walked away with it to toast the crowd between verses, his helper put a new one in its place.
The show was an old-fashioned revue, introduced by Eddie “Piolín por la Mañana” Sotelo, a DJ on 92.7 FM who came out wearing a man-on-horseback costume and seemed forever on the brink of losing control of his “mount.” A local scholarship fund was presented with a check for $25,000, courtesy of Fernández and tour sponsor Budweiser; other local personalities were introduced; and then the opening act, Paquita de la Barrio, came out.
A regal, bejeweled woman with a stage presence reminiscent of Divine in full late-period diva mode, Paquita la del Barrio’s lyrics are frequently quite critical of men and of the sexism in Latin culture. She’s been Fernández’ opening act for several years, but she’s also been the subject of much controversy, after commenting in a TV interview back in March that she’d rather see a child starve in the street than be adopted by a gay couple. There were no protests at the Garden, though–her 40-minute set was very well received.
Paquita was backed by Fernández’s group–two guitars, two trumpets, seven violins, an accordion, and a keyboardist–and the transition between sets was seamless: She finished her final song, and he walked onstage, greeted her, and began singing. It was easy to tell when it was time for the main event by watching the mariachis, whose sombreros had been at their feet for Paquita’s set. But at 8:45, it was “Put your hat on–the boss is coming!”
Fernández is a vocalist of simply astonishing power. He’s got an opera singer’s ability to hold a note and send it rippling across an arena, practically blowing the audience’s hair back. Performing professionally for nearly 50 years (his first album was released in 1966, and he made more than 40 movies between 1971 and 1991), he hasn’t lost a bit of vocal strength, though his trademark mane has gone from black to white (his eyebrows and mustache have remained miraculously unchanged). During his three-hour set, he performed dozens of songs, and though a teleprompter often displayed lyrics, he never seemed to need them, striding back and forth across the stage, waving to the audience on the sides of the sold-out arena, accepting gifts (a Mexican flag, a bright-red bra) tossed up from the floor, and singing with sweeping arm gestures and florid passion.
Ranchera music is highly traditional, with lyrics that extol the virtues of a romanticized Mexico of the past sitting alongside weepy love ballads. Fernández is a pop star in his home country, though, and has adapted other people’s anthems from time to time: “A Mi Manera” is his Spanish-language translation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and it was rapturously received at the Garden, as was everything he sang. The audience knew the words to just about every song almost as well as he did, singing along and screaming with joyous recognition as the first notes of each one rang out. Periodically, he would approach the lip of the stage and bow to the audience, basking in their undying love. It was a masterful performance by a truly iconic singer.
Critical Bias: I brought my mom.
Overheard: At least two generations of screaming women.
Random Notebook Dump: I want to know how much the guy who refills Fernández’s drink all night makes.