First Night: Manu Chao, Brixton Academy, London

Adoring fans caught in an energetic white-water rush

Tim Cumming
Sunday 18 September 2011 21:17

Manu Chao is a global star rather than the world music one, a rocker whose first passion was the Canvey Island's Dr Feelgood and the wild antics of Wilko Johnson. Add The Clash and Bob Marley into the mix with influences from Spain, Mexico, Brazil and the Caribbean – and a socio-political stance played out in his music and image – and you get a sense of how much Manu Chao exists in a category of his own.

Born to a Galician mother and Basque father and raised in France after his parents went into exile from Franco's fascist regime, political idealism and a personal restlessness seems to have been hard-wired into the artist from the get go. That same restless energy features too in the brace of languages he sings in – jumping from French, Spanish and Portuguese to English, Arabic and Galician.

The first of three gigs at the Brixton Academy comes on the heels of his album La Radiolina, his first in six years. In between, he has produced the Malian couple Amadou and Mariam's million-selling Dimanche a Bamako, seen his songs covered by Robbie Williams ("Bongo Bong") and Lily Allen ("Je Ne T'aime Plus") as well as recording an album and working on a soundtrack for a film.

The Academy must feel a little tame compared to some of his earlier venues, such as the tour of South American ports he conducted by cargo ship, playing on a stage built into the ship's hold. But there's nothing tame about the music he delivers, or the energy that the audience sends back to him.

He engages with his audience from the off. Backed by a five-piece band – drums, keyboards, guitar, bass – the first few songs segue into each other with guitarist Madjid Fahem, shirtless and in football shorts with a bonehead cut, bending the strings into mid-song rock histrionics. Chao jumps around mid-stage like a hungry kid in a toy store and stoking the musical tension guitars and drums accelerate to double and triple time.

The dynamics of a raw rock sound drowns out many of the subtleties of the studio albums, but rock concerts are rarely subtle playgrounds, especially when driven by two drummers. "Casa Babylon" slows the pace to an old-style RnB shuffle while "Tadibobeira" is Latino rock and roll with heavy boots on.

The songs are short and sharp – we get almost 30 over a two-hour set – and the reggae pulse, perhaps a nod to Brixton's musical legacy, mixes with punk rock choruses that erupt as if injected with amphetamines.

It takes the first half an hour for the pace to relax in the slow "El Viento", and Madjid Fahem switches to a Spanish guitar, though the the performance – almost pummelling the songs to the floor – remains fierce. It's to Chao's credit that strong tunes such as "Hamburger Fields" or the closing "Rainin' in Paradise" survive the energetic white-water rush of his band.

This was a pretty straight rock and roll way of doing things but neither Manu Chao or the adoring audience felt the need to let up until the last note.

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