Fiery, perennially relevant Mexican folk-rock songwriter Lila Downs has a new album out, Raiz – streaming at Spotify– and a show at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center at 7 PM tonight, Oct 10 and tomorrow night, Oct 11. At this point, the only real way you’re going to get into either of them might be with $10 “hot seats” and student rush tickets which might be available: hit the box office an hour before showtime and find out what’s left.
An artist with a devoted cult following in this country, Downs’ embrace of her Mexican roots has made her one of the most popular stadium concert draws south of the border. Interestingly, she doesn’t play a lot of New York shows: Summerstage, a Bronx theatre, El Museo del Barrio and a City Winery gig that sold out in seconds have been pretty much it in recent years. Kind of surprising for one of the world’s elite singers and songwriters.
Since the new album – sort of the equivalent of the Dolly Parton/Emmylou Harris/Linda Ronstadt trio albums for the Spanish-speaking diaspora – is a collaboration with flamenco chanteuse Niña Pastori and Argentine folk-pop singer Soledad Pastorutti, it’s a good bet that her live show is going to draw just as heavily on her album before that, 2011’s eerily carnivalesque Pecados y Milgaros (also streaming at Spotify). As Downs typically does, she mixes covers with originals. Downs’ songs on that one include the phantasmagorically scampering drinking song Mezcalito; Zapata Se Queda, a similarly somber reggae tune; La Reyna Del Inframundo, a metaphorically bristling narcocorrida; a wary, stately ranchera/cumbia mashup, Pecadora (with Illya Kuryaki and the Valderramas); and Solamente un Dia, a hazily psychedelic bachata number. The covers drawn on sources as diverse as Marco Antonio Solis ( a raptly waltzing take of Tu Carcel) and Cuco Sánchez (a meticulous, almost comically retro version of Fallaste Corazón) and other folkloric material. Downs delivers all this in her signature, disarmingly direct, insistent, slightly gritty alto.
In retrospect, the ambitious scope of Pecados y Milgaros foreshadows what Downs (and her label guys) may have been thinking where she could go with the new album. Frankly, Pastorutti comes across as out of her element alongside the two heavy hitters – and Downs ends up being the star here, almost despite herself. And the production, though lush with tasteful orchestration, is slicker and more digital than Downs’ usual organic sound. Again, Downs’ originals here are particularly tasty (pun intended): the bubbly Cumbia Del Mole, the even more psychedelic cumbia Agua De Rosas, the jazzily nocturnal Tierra de la Luz and a harder-rocking albeit less successful reprise of Zapata Se Queda. Pastori more than holds up her own throughout the more continental material. Kudos – and schadenfreude – to those who had the foresight and the funds to get tickets to this weekend’s shows when they went onsale.