Manu Chao in Arizona, 9/21/11

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Manu Chao The Lot Across From El Portal Restaurant Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Last night's Manu Chao appearance ended up being more than just a free concert on an empty parking lot across the street from a Mexican restaurant. I mean, those were definitely the basic logistics, but this wasn't just a show; it was an all out celebration.

That's how Manu made it feel.

In the last 48 hours, the cross-cultural musician defied the country's "toughest sheriff" and lifted the spirits of thousands of people who have been fighting for migrant civil rights ever since the introduction of Arizona's racist law, SB1070. And he did it without the guise of a badge, or the threat of a gun.

Music fans and supporters of the Alto Arizona cause eagerly formed a line that nearly consumed the entire perimeter of the make-shift venue. As the sun set and the sweltering heat subsided, people shuffled across the cracked blacktop to find their places.

Representatives from the various organizations involved took turns leading the crowd in chants and spreading their messages. Emotions swelled as some speakers choked back tears. The early tone was one of desperation, compassion, and frustration as phrases like, "perpetual state of crisis" and "culture of cruelty" echoed across the night sky.

Finally at 8 p.m. Manu Chao and his band rushed the stage and hit the concertgoers with an explosion of energy and sound. Chao wasted no time working up the crowd, leading the way with his acoustic strumming. They set a frantic pace, blowing through "Romerito Verde," "Mr. Bobby Marley," and "A Cosa" at a punk rock tempo. The music was every bit the Latin-infused world rock sound fans have grown accustomed to. Before long the air was filled with a medley of kick-snare-kick-snare, clap-clap-clap cadence that would dominate the evening.

Fists were thrust. Shoulders shook. Feet stomped.

After 30 blistering minutes the band paused for a moment as civil rights activist Salvador Reza reminded everyone we hadn't gathered just for music. He called for a halt of the term illegal, which is used to describe unauthorized or undocumented people in Arizona, saying that no human being is an illegal.

With that Chao resumed the action with "Clandestino," a highlight of the night. Released in 1998, the song deals with immigration and the persecution of migrant workers. At Sal's request he altered the hook to say, "La Frontera (the borderland), ilegal."

Judging off of his performance it's hard to believe Chao wasn't compensated for this outing. His sustained energy and passionate delivery showed that this cause is something he truly believes in. During "La Primavera" he set his guitar down and started beating his mic on his bare chest, simulating a heartbeat. He's been known to draw blood when he does this, but I was too far away at that point to notice if he had this time.

After almost two hours and two encores, Manu Chao and company thanked the crowd and the city of Phoenix profusely before taking a bow and calling it a night.

Organizer's estimated that 4,000 people attended the event and they had achieved their goal of zero violent incidents on the night.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Manu Chao at the vacant parking lot across the street from El Portal Mexican Restaurant.

Personal Bias: I'm brown.

The Crowd: Kinda hard to peg this one. There was a good mix of people, with a lot of Spanish speakers. I told you Joe, kind of a big deal. I'm just saying, people know him (Manu Chao).

Overheard in the crowd: "Vicente Fernandez, Luis Miguel, and even Carlos Santana sold out, but Manu Chao didn't."

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