Lila Downs/ Photo provided by Cindy Byram PR
You can go home again. Especially if you’re a now-successful,Grammy-winning musician bred in the Twin Cities.
Two such stars made emotional, triumphant homecomings Sunday in separate concerts – vibrant Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs and blues-rock hero Jonny Lang.
Downs, a University of Minnesota alum and daughter of the late university art professor Allen Downs, showed a full house at Ted Mann Concert Hall why she deserved the Grammy for best Mexican regional recording she won in February. A radiant, energetic and joyful performer, she proved to be a striking, versatile vocalist, the right combination of power, clarity, richness, range and ethnic pride.
This was a special, very personal concert to honor her father, including an exhibition of his art in a nearby U of M gallery. Her mother came from Mexico, cousins traveled from Des Moines and a sister she’d never met also attended. Several of her father’s former students were in the audience, as well, so Downs asked them to share stories.
One woman recalled how shy Lila was at age 6. “Just trying to get a picture of you was hard,” the concertgoer said. “I’m so proud of you.”
Downs certainly made the audience, her family and the U of M proud on Sunday. She performed many selections from her Grammy-winning album, “Pecados y Milagros.” Most of the songs were in Spanish, as she sang about drinking Mezcal (some students talked about how Allen Downs taught them how to drink tequila), cockroaches and marijuana, chocolate and chili sauce, and chickens..
Accompanied by her excellent sextet, Downs also offered a couple of selections in English, both with very pointed messages. “I Would Never,” about refusing to turn her back on his love, had a country-gospel groove, and the folk-styled medley of “Pastures of Plenty/This Land Is Your Land/Land” took a serious look at borders and immigration.
The highlight was "Cucurrucucu Paloma" a dramatic ballad with bird-like sounds, stunning falsetto and Downs waving her shawl with feather extensions like a bird taking flight.
Lang, 32, was equally emotional in a different way Sunday night, opening for Buddy Guy at the soldout State Theatre. The former teen wunderkind has developed into a more well-rounded talent, growing noticeably as both a vocalist and guitarist. Sure, he can be overwrought as a singer and offer lots of speedy, flashy guitar passages. But it was his subtle stuff that stood out during his 75-minute set.
The deeply gospel “Turn Around” was dark and freeing at the same time, “Red Light” was transformed into slow, soulful testifying on voice and guitar, and “That Great Day” was a slice of Southern soul that would fit in at most any funeral. If this all sounds too spiritual, remember that Lang won a Grammy for best rock or rap gospel album for 2006’s “Turn Around.”
There was no “Lie To Me” or “Breakin’ Me.” And Stevie Wonder's “Livin’ for the City,” a former live highlight, was trimmed to the point that it wasn’t exciting anymore. The biggest disappointment was that Lang didn’t stick around so when Guy asked him to join in late in the evening, he had already left the building.
During his set, Lang, who is usually not talkative in concert, acknowledged his Minnesota roots and his local rhythm section, bassist Jim Anton and drummer Barry Alexander. He also gave a shout-out to his birthplace.
“We got people from Fargo here?” he asked about his hometown before he moved to the Twin Cities.. “There’s always one, at least.”
Guy, 76, the Rock Hall of Famer, was a playful, polka-dot loving showman, as always.
He talked about the suggestive lyrics of the blues vs. the raw words of rap and displayed his smooth, animated voice and effortless mastery of blues guitar licks. On one number, he ventured out into the audience to sing and play. But the best moments were a slow blues treatment of “Fever” and then when he grabbed an acoustic guitar and offered short tributes to John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton (Cream actually) and especially Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t That Peculiar”).
Just as the momentum of his oddly paced set picked up, Guy shifted into his recent love-one-another number, the gospel-soul “Skin Deep,” and then abruptly ended his performance after a mere 70 minutes.