Colombian reggaeton titan J Balvin burst into the mainstream in 2017 with his global smash “Mi Gente,” guested with Beyonce at her Coachella “Homecoming” performance last year and also appeared alongside Cardi B on her summer hit “I Like It.” And although his 2017 “Energia” tour was a spectacle on its own, few people were probably prepared for the mind-blowing, surreal experience that is his current “Arcoiris” (Spanish for rainbow) tour.
Premiered at the Coachella festival in April, it’s safe to say the show is like no concert production ever staged before. Created in partnership with the ambitious, immersive and often hilarious arts collective FriendsWithYou, the show is like a cross between a live cartoon and an awesome hallucinogenic experience.
It finds Balvin surrounded by some wildly adorned dancers, and others in giant, comical, blobby costumes that range from dancing mushrooms to giant ice-pops with faces to figures resembling Michelin men with clouds for heads (the smiling cloud-head is essentially FriendsWithYou’s mascot). There is also a huge toy horse that Balvin and the dancers ride for a couple of songs, and a gigantic cartoon-ish character seated onstage with a starfish on one ear, a hoop earring in the other, a teddy-bear-like creature sitting on its head and another cloud-head in its lap.
During the slower-paced middle of the set, Balvin performed on a second stage toward the back of the arena floor, which featured more giant mushroom- and lollipop-like props, and small hydraulic platform that resembled a giant candy cane; it rose about 50 feet above the stage while Balvin sang atop it.
Later, back on the main stage, dancers dressed as Cardi B and Bad Bunny, wearing hilarious giant prosthetic heads, came out for “I Like It.” Audience members had been handed watch-like plastic wristbands as they entered the arena, which lit up in a variety of colors at multiple points during the show, making the audience look like a multicolored constellation. And through it all, eye-popping graphics pulsated on a giant screen at the back of the stage and smaller cloud-shaped ones on either side, perfectly in time to the music.
The show is visually stunning on so many levels — the staging, the effects, the choreography, the lights, the graphics and visuals, and perhaps mostly the overall vision — that the elements sometimes distract from each other (really, it’s hard to focus on Balvin’s incredible drummer when the singer is grinding with a female dancer on top of a giant toy horse). But the set was nearly as exciting musically: Accompanied by longtime DJ and hypeman David Rivera Mazo and a small band, Balvin started with his hit “Reggaeton” and roared through a set that contained not only many highlights from his career — “Con Altura,” featuring a hilarious video animation of duet partner Rosalia, “Ginza,” “Otra Vez,” “Bonita,” “Ambiente,” “Mojaita,” and more — but also a tribute to reggaeton’s forebears, including a medley of N.O.R.E.’s “Oye Mi Canto,” Wisin y Yandel’s “Rakata” and Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” and later a short bugalu interlude at the end of “I Like It.” He gave a long speech (in Spanish) encouraging people who suffer from depression to get help — particularly those who are discouraged by their immigration status; he spoke of how he came to the U.S. and worked illegally when he was younger (and the tour’s rainbow theme is a statement in itself). The crowd’s reaction to this speech was somber encouragement, which was pretty much the only point during the entire show that it wasn’t dancing with elation.
The set wound up with what might be the most over-the-top finale this reporter has ever witnessed: For the encore of, naturally, “Mi Gente,” Balvin and the band were joined onstage by seven or eight giant, surreal dancing characters — a cookie with eyes, a pair of hands, a rainbow-colored popsicle, something that looked like the cookie monster — while confetti flew, steam erupted from the bottom of the stage and a giant rainbow, with a smiley cloud-head at either end, dropped from the ceiling. And after that impossible-to-follow finale, the concert ended and the house lights came up — although Balvin returned to the stage briefly for a victory lap, waving to the crowd that still couldn’t believe what it had seen.
There have been bigger concert productions by bigger artists — the Rolling Stones, U2, Madonna — but apart from Prince’s 1988 “Lovesexy” tour, we’ve never witness a show as big and bizarre as this one.