The City National Grove of Anaheim
Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas has been so consistently great without being overstated that the fact she's been around as a solo performer for 20 years creeps up like a quiet realization. Warming up on a Wednesday night before her weekend Dia de los Muertos show at Hollywood Forever cemetery, the multi-instrumentalist shined at the City National Grove of Anaheim, traversing through the treasure trove of songs that compile her storied career.
The singer, looking ever-elegant in a flowing green gown, started the show with selections off of Algo Sucede, her latest studio album. "Esperaba" perfectly warmed up with crowd with its energetic New Wave infusions. When Venegas hoisted an accordion over her shoulder for the first time, her loyal fans erupted in joy. She belted the opening melody to "Ese Camino" with such authority on the instrument that it left no doubt as to her chingona status! In fact, it never felt quite right throughout the show whenever her band mate handled accordion duties for her.
But Venegas is a multi-instrumentalist. She took turns on the keyboard, acoustic guitar, and accordion countless times with ease. Venegas also confidently strutted around the stage when armed only with a microphone and that wondrous soft and breathy voice of hers. She beamed with radiance, crooning "Limon y Sal" and other songs with a backdrop screen that showed a galaxy of stars, making her talents seem all the more otherworldly.
Midway through the set, Venegas took a retro route through her immense catalog, much to the delight of older indie-rockeros in the crowd (me!). She strummed furiously on "Me Van a Matar (Amores Perros)" from the soundtrack of the acclaimed Mexican movie from 2000 that helped actor Gael Garcia Bernal get his big break. Towards the end of the song, she improvised the famed "Dime cuando tu vas a volver" lyrics of the late Mexican legend Juan Gabriel's "Querida" before perfectly blending in a "Noa Noa" for good measure in tribute.
Changing instruments again, Venegas returned to her accordion and stayed vintage announcing to the crowd that the next song came off Bueninvento, one of her lesser-known albums that came out in 2000. Departing from the sound of her New Wave-infused material and big pop hits, "Casa Abandonada" crept along a quirky accordion melody that morphed into innovative indie-rock. She didn't stay on memory lane too long, leaving the critically acclaimed but commercially challenged album behind without performing its dour gems like "Seria Feliz" and "Hoy No Quiero."
In her extensive career, Venegas shed the avant garde gloomy explorations for a more pop-orientated sound with pastel moods, starting with Si in 2003. It seemed like a rebuff of her ardent indie fan-base on both sides of the border at the time, but the talented singer-songwriter core of her compositions stayed with the increased exposure, fame, and Grammy awards. That remained evident as Venegas sat alone at the keyboard, easing into stripped down piano melody for "Lento" until her band later joined to fill out the song.
The crowd-pleasing continued with Venegas flowing through a funky rendition of "Algo Esta Cambiando" and taking over Chilean MC Ana Tijoux's rap duties for "Eres Para Mi." She ended the set with "El Presente," off her MTV Unplugged album professing a devotion for her "Californianos queridos." But like any concert with a buncha Latinos in the audience, no sooner as Venegas walked off the stage did the chants of "Otra!" Otra!" begin.
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The encore began with a tribute to the late Juan Gabriel, whose death is still felt as a profound loss in the Latin America music community. JuanGa's portrait beamed from the back screen, while Venegas belted a rendition of "Juro Que No Volvere." And like all tributes, the dynamics of JuanGa's treasured voice can't fully be replicated, underscoring the depth of his loss. The timing for Venegas to follow up with her stellar cover of his classic "Siempre en mi Mente" seemed right, but the musician chose to end with "Andar Conmigo" and "Me Voy," taking a well deserved bow for a flawless, nearly two-hour journey through her creative prowess.
Have we been blessed with Venegas' music for almost 20 years now? Last night's performance, breathtaking in its breadth, served as testament to the singer-songwriter's subtle timelessness.