You could draw a lot of conclusions from Colombian singer Carlos Vives’ triumphant return to South Florida on Saturday night, in a sold out concert at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena. One could be the cliché that absence makes the heart grow fonder — the show was part of a comeback tour for Vives, who was one of the biggest stars in Latin music from the mid-’90s to mid-’2000s before disappearing from the U.S. scene. The audience was as deliriously enthusiastic, maybe more so, as at any of the big venue concerts Vives played regularly during his heyday. All the way up to the ceiling, people stayed on their feet for almost the entire 21/2-hour show, dancing and so loudly singing along to familiar favorites they threatened to overwhelm the band and the beaming singer at its center.
Another is that Latin artists still generate excitement with just their presence, energy and music, without the enormous productions (as in Beyonce’s South Florida shows last week) that have become the norm for major mainstream acts. Vives played with the same band he’s had since he’s started, with the virtuoso, energetic, but definitely aging star accordionist Egidio Cuadrado at its musical center. The sweating, exuberant Vives wore the same T-shirt and jeans throughout. There were no dancers (unless you count Vives and flautist Mayte Montero in an affectionate, semi-folkloric dance), just a few low-tech videos and a couple blasts of dry ice and confetti.
The power of this show was Vives’ essentially Colombian and soulful music; traditional vallenato — a raw, accordion- and percussion-driven country style — sweetened with pop melodies and harmonies and with a harder drive from rock guitar and bass. The 14-piece band featured five percussionists on everything from traditional scraper and caja to a modern trap set. And the music is infectiously joyful. If Saturday’s set sometimes verged on chaos, bubbling with instrumental jams and roaring crowd sing-alongs, that only added to the fun. (The sound toward the front was badly mixed and over amplified; farther back, it sounded much better.)
Vives opened with Dejame entrar (Let me come in), the title of his hit 2001 album, and closed with Volvi a nacer (Reborn Again) from his comeback release Corazon Profundo. He ranged through favorites including La gota fria (The cold sweat), his remake of an old vallenato on his 1994 breakout; Pa’ Mayte, a playful tribute to Montero, and La tierra del olvido (Land of the forgotten), his tribute to the Colombian countryside. That song featured Vives’ teenage daughter Lucia, who sang beautifully in her first concert appearance with her father and was there with Vives’ third wife and two younger children.
Vives’ appeal is also an example of the way a significant sector of Latin music fans seems to have an attachment to artists and national traditions that goes beyond nostalgia for hit songs from their youth. There were plenty of 20-somethings at the show who would have been children when Vives became a star. They roared for an opening video showing Vives trekking through the Colombian jungle. Rock de mi pueblo (Rock of my people), with Vives on bluesy harmonica, featured a stream of images of old and new Colombian musicians. He’s an artist who represents Colombia.
Vives seemed almost overwhelmed by the response, but his happiness seemed sincere, not stagey. The audience didn’t sing along on most of the new songs, like Amanecer (Dawning) and Corazon profundo. But they had a different, more engaging melody, a powerful sense of emotion at what music means and what life offers. As grateful as Vives is to be back, his audience seemed even more grateful for what he offers.