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Lila Downs exudes substance and vitality at London show

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Tuesday June 21, 2016

From The Financial Times
By David Honigmann

Lila Downs, Royal Festival Hall, London — ‘Anger and vitality’

Inexplicably, Lila Downs’s last album, Balas y Chocolate , lamenting corruption and violence in her native Mexico, was not even released in the UK. A less confident singer might have thought twice about a setlist made up largely of its songs. But Downs entered to brass stabs from her band, trailing a white tulle bustle and twirling a yellow scarf as fireworks exploded on the screen behind her: she tipped a few drops of mezcal on to the stage to appease the saints, took a swig herself, and handed the bottle into the audience.

The two-hour-long genre-spanning revue that followed had its moments of political anger. “Humito de Copal” she dedicated to Mexico’s journalists “passed in the line of fire”; cigar smoke swirled around the screen as she sang about “the trail of the dead”. The Blue Nile’s “I Would Never” became a paean to immigrant workers, its stoical Scots minimalism mutated into a torch ballad. Over a slow soul vamp she preached about political hate — “You probably know who I’m talking about especially,” she teased — alluding to Trump and Hitler without explicitly naming either.

Mexican punk anthems with a hint of Los de Abajo brought ska-filled vitality to “Patrina Madrina” and other celebrations of “our great nation, a place called Mexico”. She was handed a T-shirt calling for “no more disappearances”, remembering the 43 students kidnapped from Iguala in 2014. On “Mano Negra” she pogoed vigorously through the two-step accelerando thrash. “Son de Difuntos” brought the whole house to its feet, the band circling her and stamping.

La Muerte, the uncannily maternal Mexican personification of Death, was a constant presence, from woodcut skulls and skeletal puppets dancing on the screen to the ironic Weimar fanfares on “Viene La Muerte”. But there was also the Zapotec ballad “La Martiniana”, bouncy lizard dancing to “La Iguana” and an accordion duel in the middle of “Vámonos” with snatches of “Greensleeves”, “Yellow Submarine” and “Yesterday”.

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