Some gigs are like wild house parties. Others resemble wakes. Manuel García’s concert, on the other hand, was more akin to a politically-charged university camping trip.
The popular guy with the great voice remembered to bring his guitar. A group of fresh-faced young admirers sang along, ready and eager to take on the world. The only things missing were the campfire, the weed and the alcohol.
Marcel García is Chile’s answer to Nick Drake but with the politics and poetry of Bob Dylan and some of Sufjan Stevens’ quirkiness thrown in for good measure. Sala SCD Vespucio in La Florida was the perfect venue for him, intimate enough to feel cozy but with enough room on the stage to ensure that the guitarist didn’t elbow the bassist in the face.
Although García records as a solo artist, that Friday night he brought along a full live band and special guest Alexis Marín, a singer who is more familiar with entertaining commuters on Santiago’s micros (buses) than performing in a theatre. Such a body count onstage meant that songs such as “La Gran Capital” (The Great Capital) were riotous and fun, but it was the simplest arrangements that worked best. García’s emotive performance of “Un Viejo Communista” (One Old Communist), accompanied by violin, cello and a happy baby gurgling along in the audience, nearly brought the house down.
The anthems of Cuba’s Nueva Trova and Chile’s own Nueva Cancion movements (both meaning “New Song”) are in the blood of most left-wing Chileans, and as García and friends switched between his own songs and those of folk heroes Victor Jara, Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, the audience sang along with one voice.
When Salvador Allende was elected in 1970, Jara and other musicians joined him on stage under a banner that read “There can be no revolution without song.” In a country where many find it difficult to talk about politics, singing does the job instead. When Garcia covered Rodríguez’s “Santiago de Chile,” the Cuban singer’s angry response to Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military coup, the electrical charge in the room could have powered the whole city.
While his feet may be firmly rooted in Latin American folk traditions, García’s toes tap to rock n’ roll too. “Folk music is dynamic. It’s concerned with social change,” he said. “But it’s not a museum piece–it shouldn’t be static. The Beatles are just as important to me when I’m composing a song.”
García’s influences range from Bach and Leonard Cohen to Radiohead and Pink Floyd, but the poetry that his mother’s family taught him to love and the sound of the birds twittering outside his window are just as important.
After finishing the show by romancing the audience with “Tu Ventana” (Your Window) from his first album Pánico (Panic), I asked him what he could see from his own window. He smiled, cocked his head to one side and answered, “A gray wall, a gray city–but a city that still resists, and still fights to improve its economic standing in the world.”
Victor Jara would be proud of him.