Juanga Bombs in Tijuana

By: Marcelo Báez

“I... don't know. I mean, he was good, but... I dunno,” grumbled one disappointed friend. By then we were no longer at Tijuana's massive Caliente stadium, where Juan Gabriel had performed and premiered a brand-new song which, according to the singer's live monologue, was especially written for “the prettiest of the Mexican borders.” (Juárez, Juanga's long-time girlfriend, has to be fuming right about now.) No, by then a group of buddies and myself were at La Mija de La Mezcalera, Tijuana's current It venue. There, the Chilean-born producer Matías Aguayo was performing in front of a full house. Another friend continued: “It's Juan Gabriel. He'll always be amazing, but I think this particular set list just sucked.”

Armed with only few gizmos and a microphone, Aguayo achieved something Juan Gabriel didn't do with a full band, backup singers, dancers, giant LED screens, and DMX-controlled intelligent lighting: pump up a crowd. Is Matías really that much better than Juan Gabriel? No, of course not. It's apples and oranges, and the comparison isn't fair to either performer. However, unlike at Juan Gabriel's concert, no one was walking away from Matías' show in the middle of his set.

I've seen Juan Gabriel live before and, at least back then, bringing people to tears seemed like second nature to him. Resembling an effeminate ringleader, the Mexican legend could easily stir up a frenzy by simply waving his hands around. Last Saturday, however, my friends and I spent more time looking for the nomadic potato chip and esquite vendors than actually looking at, or singing along with El Divo de Juárez.

So what when wrong? My friend said the setlist was to blame and, even for a hardcore fan like myself, it did feel odd. The first batch of songs were awkward rehashes (“Pero qué necesidad” in mariachi, “Juan y María,” filler from El México que se nos fue, in a pop arrangement), and even the concert intro, a moment when Juan Gabriel walked on stage but left all the singing to a Proyecto Uno knock off group, felt lazy and anticlimactic. From there on a non-stop troupe of dancers and musicians covered the stage and it became increasingly difficult to spot Juan even from our fancy box seat view.

While thinking about how certain embellishments can easily become a hindrance, Raphael, the Spanish singer, suddenly came to mind. Years ago I had the opportunity of seeing him perform with no more than a piano player behind him. No fancy lights, wardrobe, or a never ending amount of personnel. I'm well acquainted with Raphael's catalog, but I still figured I wouldn't be able to stick around the concert for more than an hour. Three hours later you couldn't pay me enough money to leave my seat because, just like all the great theatrical entertainers —think Freddie Mercury, Tom Waits, Liberace— Raphael's showmanship was impeccable and highly entertaining. That's because a good show is all about the drama, not the gimmicks or distractions.

“That's what Juanga should be doing,” I said to myself after my Raphael flashback. And if 71-year-old Raphael can pull it off, doing something similar shouldn’t be too hard for the 65-year-old—especially since Juan has been patting himself on the back for losing weight.

It's not that a big, polished production doesn't work. In fact, Juan Gabriel's own Concierto de Bellas Artes is essentially a master class of lavish drama and fun. But back then, even if the stage was sprinkled with a huge staff, Juan always put himself front and center. Now he’s constantly seen leaning against the monitors while members of his entourage perform panicked sideshows.

But, frankly, the dull Tijuana concert can't be entirely blamed on Alberto’s age, condition, or lack of stamina. For example, when the first chords of “Querida” began to blast through the sound system (provoking a massive communal orgasm), Juanga was abruptly cut off by Tijuana's city officials. Apparently the best time to give a singer the key to the city and a soccer jersey is when he's about to sing his biggest hit.

It wasn’t all bad either. The second half of the concert picked up considerably. After the bewildering homage and a ten-minute rendition of “Tijuana,” the special song he wrote for Tijuana —which Tijuana wasn't really feeling— Juanga properly sang plenty of classics. “He venido a pedirte perdón,” “Insensible,” and “Caray” heavily rocked the crowd. During those songs no one of my crew spoke to each other because it seemed like everyone wanted to soak up all the classic Juanga before it was gone.

“Wait, he sang 'Caray'!?” one eavesdropper asked back at La Mija. “Yeah, towards the end,” I replied. “¡Chingado! I knew he's going to sing all the good shit eventually,” uttered the eavesdropper before concluding, “I’m pissed. But now Matias Aguayo is gonna help me sweat out the frustration.”

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.