There are very few people in this world who can make dancing like a chicken look sexy. Count Lila Downs as one of them. The strutting, "ki, ki, ki, ki, ki"--filled performance of "Los Pollos" was one of the highlights of the Mexican-American songstress' performance last night at the Grove in Anaheim. "I'm warning you, chickens, we're gonna make a stew out of you," she told the audience as an introduction to the Son Jarocho-style jam that was filled with the traditional harp music native to the Mexican state of Veracruz.Happily for her chickens/fans--many of whom emulated Downs' rebozo chic style for the occasion--the Minnesota-born singer still had plenty of energy left over after her performance at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery's Día de los Muertos celebration Saturday night. The two-hour set in Anaheim was a marathon of jilted lovers, tragedy-stricken ghosts and freedom fighters from the singer who's dual backgrounds as a university-trained Opera singer and cantina-trained ranchera crooner, have given her a flare for diverse theatrics.
The majority of Sunday's set list consisted of songs from Downs' last original album, 2008's Shake Away/Ojo de Culebra (The Very Best of El Alma de Lila Downs came out this summer), which is heavy on guest appearances by Spanish-language greats like Café Tacvba's lead singer Rubén Albarrán and Spanish rocker/Jim Morrison reincarnation, Enrique Bunburry. Since this was the first time I had seen her perform these songs live, I was curious to see how she would fill in for her friends. I never should have doubted her three-octave vocal range. She seamlessly invoked Bunburry's brooding on the human rights battle cry "Justicia" and Albarrán's nasal-y incantations in "Perro Negro," a jaunty polka that pokes fun at Latin America's corrupt politicians.
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When Downs performs, I can't help but evoke the image of a little girl dancing around her bedroom to her parents' records. She spins, twirls and pulls pink feather boas out of a prop trunk on the side of the stage. For the gospel-infused "Minimum Wage" Downs donned a baseball cap in homage to migrant workers, and a black rebozo transformed her into the weeping woman for the classic folk ballad, "La Llorona."
She brought us to our feet with her crowd favorite, "Paloma Negra," a cry into your tequila-style song about lost love, and we stayed there for the much more danceable "Cumbia de Mole." One (slightly drunk?) male audience member was moved to participate and gave Downs a couple of spins around the stage.
There was a collective heart sigh when security pulled down Dancing Man. All of us chickens wanted to be up there spinning with Lila, too.