Scotland has Belle and Sebastian. Mexico has Julieta Venegas. If ever there were a twee Latin rock artist, Venegas would be its reigning queen.
In 15 years of recording, Venegas has evolved, but she has always remained true to a delicate yet strong sensibility rooted in Mexican ranchera music. Her latest album, Los Momentos, features electronics to a degree never heard on her previous records. She wrote most of the songs on piano and recorded at home so she could be close to her first child.
Over the weekend, this stripped-back sound required a smaller band than usual, just five musicians including herself, at the Fillmore Miami Beach Fillmore. The venue was also nearly half-empty, and considering the sing-alongs to every tune except her new material, not many who showed up seemed that familiar with Los Momentos.
It's a shame, because it's as great a work as any of her earlier five albums.
See also: Julieta Venegas on Los Momentos, "Not Just Stories About Falling Into and Out of Love"
Despite the smallish crowd, Venegas' consistency in the recording studio was reflected in the consistency of her tight, immaculate performance at the Fillmore.
Because of her reliance on keyboards for the new album, Venegas' stage setup featured several synth stations. There weren't many tricks beyond some minimal lighting effects and no costume changes. The most theatrical moves Venegas pulled were deciding to sit at a keyboard or strap on an accordion.
That she handles the accordion without any irony, as it's an instrument essential to ranchera, felt refreshing to this English-language music critic. It's moving in the purest way to watch and listen to an artist as sincere as Venegas in a pop world filled with shocking trash. This was all about the music, and music this well-written indeed stood out for itself that night.
After two songs from her last two albums, she greeted the audience. Speaking in Spanish, she talked about the pleasure of returning to Miami (she last appeared at the Gusman in Downtown Miami in 2011). She also admitted that this would be a show featuring lots of new material before adding modestly that it will get better. She only ever addressed the audience in Spanish, even though she speaks fluent English.
It took a song from 2000 for the audience to wake up and clap and sing along: "Sería Feliz." She followed it with "Limón y Sal," the title track from her 2006 album, which received another enthusiastic response. She introduced the next song as her new single. And "Verte Otra Vez" was a pretty, piano-focused pop number that stands up well against any of her other songs.
Throughout the show, Venegas did a lot to reach out to the audience. When she spoke, she was often drowned out by declarations of love. Before performing another new song ("Por Qué?") the 42-year-old singer offered a thought about the surprises in life.
"Life is a dance," she said before taking off to play the rather dramatic tune, which captures a matured vision that's also life-affirming.
Venegas chatted a bit throughout the night, even sharing a story about a friend asking whether visiting Mexico was safe in the wake of recent years of drug-related violence.
"You shouldn't let fear get in the way of your decisions," she said to applause, before kicking off another new song, "Vuelve." Literally translated as "Return," the song specifically deals with her concern over the current climate created by the drug-related violence of her country.
Lest the show become too serious, Venegas did not deny the crowd a fair share of her hits. "Eres para mí, Miami," she said before kicking off her song of the same title. She also offered a stripped-back "Lento," which only featured piano and some light bass, but was still received warmly by the audience.
The show was brisk and dynamic with a brief encore of two songs. Though it was a show for the diehard fans, it was as sincere a performance as you could ever ask for.
Personal Bias: My wife turned me on to Venegas many years ago, and there's something pleasant about watching her sing along to her music.
Julieta Venegas' Setlist:
-"Bien o Mal"
-"Limón y Sal"
-"Verte Otra Vez"
-"No Hace Falta"
-"Eres Para Mí"
-"Acciones de Amor"
-"Un Poco de Paz"
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-"Algo Está Cambiando"
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.