For the better part of two decade, Manu Chao has dominated the Euro tour scene. But outside a worldly niche, he hasn't stormed U.S. stages with half the explosive success. Well, apparently, America is ready for Manu Chao, because half the country seemed to converge on the Crystal Ballroom last week for a sweaty, sexy, sold-out show that packed the venue to the gills and gave its trademark bouncing floor a massive workout. The Euro superstar killed every minute of his two-hour-plus ruckus, exploding into fits of reggae, flamenco, calypso, rock and everything in between to the thrill and undulation of everybody in the crowd.
Yet there was something vaguely intimidating about the show, especially as a dorky journalist with no dance moves flying solo. Despite the fact that hardly anyone knew what he was saying (there was a lot of French, Spanish and Arabic flying from the stage), Chao speaks the universal language of chaotic and groove-filled musical bliss, and everyone seemed intimately connected with the bare-chested troubadour. The air was thick with sexuality. With each song ending in chants, explosions of percussion, and exclamations of “Hey!,” the scene was like a World Cup after party, and being in a scene like that wasn't conducive to a nerd with a notepad and bad dance moves being the cool guy in the room—or getting laid.
Yet Portland showed it can get down. In a town where people seldom give in to fits of dancing, Chao brought out all the right energies in this boogie-deficient scene. Limbs flew, pelvises pulsed and fists pumped. Sweat sprayed like a fire hose, and people locked eyes across the crowded, bouncing floor like sex was for sale. It was like a Euro version of a Major Lazer show, where Carribbean beats and dry humping—er, daggering—were replaced by sloppy sambas and Spanish guitar.
Somehow, I managed to be only the 82nd dorkiest guy at a show populated by slicked-up Latinos, beautiful women in short dresses, frat dudes, cougars and older couples who put the youngsters to shame with their coordinated dance moves. And as such, I am grateful to the following 82 people who made me feel better about my lameness and free to let loose and dance.
: The number of people trying to grind like they were at a Drake show.
: The number of white dudes I overheard in the bathroom speaking in broken Spanish and then looking to Latino dudes for approval. Extra points to the one who talked about using his Spanish skills to pick up chicks by accidentally (well, I think accidentally) saying “chicos” instead of “chicas.”
: The number of dudes who ordered loudly from the bartender in the same broken Spanish, only get the response, “I don't speak Spanish.”
: The number of girls overheard talking about how much they love Mexican music, despite the fact that Manu Chao is Spanish/French. Extra points to the girl who kept saying it to the suave Mexican guy she was attempting to dance with.
: Number of couples who prolonged the drink line by politely refusing to belly up to the bar and fucking order. A rare 21-and-up show at the Crystal meant a very thirsty crowd, and these folks' refusal to go with the flow meant that at least a dozen people dance right around them. Nice guys don't always finish last, but they do often remain thirsty for longer than most.
: The excited guy who took off his shirt repeatedly and pinwheeled it over his head as if Manu Chao had just scored a winning goal against Manchester United. Since most of Chao's songs end the same way—an explosion of percussion and a chorus of “hey!”—this happened a lot, and after a few beers he got a little clumsy and whacked me in the head with the shirt. After an apology, he was once again shirtless. This time, the windmill missed me but hit two pretty young women in the faces, splattering sweat everywhere. Nobody seemed to care.
In fact, nobody seemed to care much about any of the goofiness, which made Manu Chao's performance one of the most hectic and enjoyable shows in recent memory. After four encores, the crowd reluctantly spilled into the street, where body heat made people appear steaming in the autumn cold. Perhaps they were steaming after the chaos and giddy mayhem Chao brought to Portland. Hopefully, as he continues his stateside domination, he'll remember that we lame, dance-averse chumps are more than willing to throw down to the right soundtrack next time he brings his bare-chested bravado out west.
Photo from a Manu Chao show in Russia courtesy of his MySpace page. Also, the editors of this blog goofed and should have posted this on Monday, but it's so funny we just had to share.