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Review: Re-energized Juanes brings jubilant ‘Unplugged’ tour to Hard Rock

The Juanes Loud & Unplugged tour that hit a sold-out Hollywood Hard Rock Live on Thursday, June 27 is ostensibly a standard promotional outing for the Colombian rock star’s MTV Unplugged album. But it also marked the rejuvenation and, perhaps, reinvention of one of the biggest acts in Latin music, as a grinning, exuberant Juanes romped through a two-hour show for a warmly enthusiastic crowd. After personal and professional crises led to his absence from performing for almost three years, both the singer and his audience were thrilled to be together again.

“Unplugged” usually means gently and elaborately acoustic, but loud was the operative word here. The show was powered by a return to rock ’n’ roll basics (Juanes started as a teen heading a heavy-metal band in Colombia), with the singer simultaneously mocking rock clichés — bouncing guitar-hero jumps, striding the stage open-armed to exhort the crowd — even as he celebrated and embodied the music’s wild energy.

Although the expanded 11-member band, which included a three-man brass section, frequently stretched out with exploratory and even jazz-inflected solos and musical exchanges, the operative energy was raw and rootsy, powered by sweat and charisma, not an ocean of electronic effects.

Wearing basic black jeans and T-shirt, hair short and spiky, Juanes opened with Fijate Bien, the ferocious title track from his 2000 solo debut, and charged through a show of mostly hits and favorites, from La Camisa Negra and Me Enamora to La Paga and Es por Ti. He did one new song, Cumbia Sexy (more punchy rock than cumbia), and two from Unplugged, the Django Reinhardt-esque Azul Sabina and the yearning La Señal (written by Juan Luis Guerra, the master musician who produced Unplugged and did much of the arrangements for this tour).

But he changed things up. Nada Valgo Sin Tu Amor (Nothing’s worth it without your love), usually a power rock ballad, was stripped down, faster, with an almost punk energy. He mocked the usual stadium grandeur of Me Enamora by playing his guitar behind his head, showing off and making fun of himself at the same time, then rocketing into earnest overdrive — interspersed with exuberant solos for the band. Para Tu Amor became a sparse, jazzily lilting ballad, and Juanes showed newly confident vocal versatility on the winding Dificile, going from poignant falsetto to quivering howl.

He turned La Noche, a favorite by classic Colombian salsero Joe Arroyo, into a howling rock cumbia jam, and played Rebellion (No te pegues la negra), another Arroyo party-starter, with a swing and energy worthy of a top salsa band. He shook up Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved, double-timing and punching up the rhythm to segue seamlessly into the cumbia-powered Camisa Negra.

The musicians – a drummer, two percussionists, guitarist and bassist, keyboard player and two backup singers in addition to the trumpet, sax and trombone – played with verve and happy chemistry, swinging or rocking as required. (One of the backup singers was robust, bluesy-voiced University of Miami graduate Raquel Sofia, who opened the show with some sharply original, rap-inflected songs.)

The tour ends Sunday, June 30 in Orlando, and on Thursday Juanes and the band seemed to be celebrating. After the encore, they lingered onstage, taking photos of the crowd and each other and dancing goofily. But the new energy and happiness that Juanes seems to have found in his music looks like it will last him for a long time.