Despite a huge, if factionalized, Spanish-speaking population, New York has not really been a hotbed of “rock en espanol.” But if the throng that greeted Franco-Spanish singer Manu Chao in Manhattan’s Central Park, waving flags, shouting along with every chorus — and shaking many a tail feather to the eye-opening deejay set by Tijuana’s Nor-Tec Collective — that’s about to change in a big way.
Chao, best known for his long stint fronting pan-cultural punks Mano Negra, had not appeared in Gotham for a full decade. That likely contributed to the overflow crowd that mobbed the bucolic venue for the sweltering afternoon perf. And true to form, the singer wasted little time in hitting the populist groove his fans have come to expect.
More focused orator than shamanistic preacher, Chao remained relatively still at center stage while a wide array of percussion and horn players exploded around him, hypercharging his ska-rock songs with verve but not a lot of subtlety. Head-down sprints through songs like the Specials-styled “Promiscuity” and “Mr. Bobby” (a double for his hit “King of Bono”) worked up a good head of steam but didn’t really go anywhere.
As the set progressed, however, Chao and company got in gear most impressively, waxing both spiritual (on the Algerian-tinged “Denia”) and playful (as on the wacky brass workout “Merry Blues”). Some of the more offbeat collage elements of Chao’s style — chiefly the oddball sequencer programming — were left in the dust, but in context that was a small sacrifice.
Like Bob Marley, the Parisian-born singer-songwriter has a flair for mixing the hedonistic with the political, as he demonstrated on songs like “Welcome to Tijuana,” a fractious sing-along that blended praise of tequila and marijuana with withering dismissals of customs and immigration agents.
Likewise, “Luna y Sol,” with its friendly rhythmic goosing, engendered plenty of bouncing (about the only movement that was practical in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd).
Gogol Bordello, a troupe of transplanted Europeans fronted by Ukranian emigre George Hutz, won over an initially skeptical crowd with its frenetic energy and bizarro-world juxtapositions. Employing violin, tuba and cheerleader-outfitted percussionists, the septet flitted from gypsy boogie (“Mussolini vs. Stalin”) to Weill-via-Waits cabaret (“Greencard Husband”), leaving nothing but good, if fractured, vibes in its wake.