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Monday, September 08, 2008

Unplugged and Charged Up:

Julieta Venegas

Washington Post Express, September 8, 2008

Written by Express contributor Alfredo Flores
Top photo courtesy Julieta
Venegas; live photo by Mauricio Ramirez/MTV Latinoamérica

NOT MANY MUSICIANS can rock a bedazzled accordion like Julieta Venegas. Despite her petite frame, the popular and talented Mexican singer-songwriter has a large stage presence and brings a joyful, universally appealing energy to her shows, which are packed with people who know all the words to her songs. (There were an estimated 5,000 fans at Venegas' recent Central Park show.) The funny part is that Venegas is something of an accidental emo-turned-Latin-pop star. In the late 1990s she sported dark mascara, black fingernails and sang gloomy punk ballads, but starting with the 2003 album "Sí," her style evolved into catchy, upbeat, keyboard-laced pop tracks mixed with accordion and other traditional norteño sounds of her hometown Tijuana. "It was a real slow process, to be honest with you," said Venegas in Spanish in a telephone interview from her Mexico City home. "It wasn't a conscious decision. I was looking for a way to express what I felt through song, and as I got older it became clearer how best to compose these songs that dealt with certain emotions and sentiments: sadness, melancholy, feelings that are harsher. I found a way to better explain it all." Venegas also uses her videos to unload certain emotions, but they're also always playful and imaginative. In "Me Voy" she rides a hot air balloon and dumps objects she no longer needs — including a half-naked boyfriend — and as the load gets lighter, Venegas looks happier, the accordion gets faster and the balloon goes higher. In the electronica-filled "Eres Para Mi" — about a romantic interest — Venegas walks backward through the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina, smiling and interacting with a nun, a cop, an ice cream vendor and random city folk, before they all break into synchronized dance after a rap solo from Chilean MC Anita Tijoux. And "Lento"— a bubbly pop song about taking things slow, featuring acoustic guitar, toy keyboard and synthetic drums — is set in Japan and shows pink, white and red flowers blooming from street cracks, dilapidated parks and window stoops after every step Venegas takes. "I've always like to play with fantasy," she said about her videos. "I like to have a visual for every song that I can work with. I really enjoy playing a bit with images to create a reality that's parallel with my interpretation of the song." Venegas' latest work album is "MTV Unplugged" — now in its ninth consecutive week at No. 1 in Mexico. Venegas was hands-on with the project, picking her collaborators and fine tuning her previous songs for the large band acoustic setting, as well as recording four new tracks, most notably the ska-filled single "El Presente" — also the name of her current tour. "It was an ambitious project to take on," she said. "I've learned a lot through the whole process, playing with all different types of musicians I wasn't necessarily used to, how to do arrangements, being more involved in the production side of things, but I'm very happy how the 'Unplugged' album turned out. It turned out super wonderful." Venegas will bring along a 15-member mini-orchestra in her first ever performance in Washington when she plays the Kennedy Center on Sept. 9, and promises to deliver a near replica of the song list and delivery she did in the "Unplugged" special. That performance was filled with the band's trumpets, violins, cellos, banjos, ukuleles and woodwinds, and Venegas sings like a bird — very soft and melodic — and she switches between accordion, keyboard and acoustic guitar. Venegas' eclecticism is a result of her border-town upbringing. The 37-year-old was born in Long Beach, Calif., and raised in music-rich Tijuana. But she also felt fortunate to be able to cross into the U.S. to check out music and see shows — rock / norteño maestros Los Lobos being one her of favorite American bands. In her teens Venegas loved Tijuana's punk-rock scene, but has always had a fondness with norteño music. Norteño is a musical marriage born out of German immigration to north Mexico during the Prohibition Era in the U.S. The Germans brought their button accordions with them and helped created a classic country-Mexican sound that Venegas has made her own with nods toward pop rhythms. "I've always been fascinated with the accordion, and the people who played it — Los Lobos included," she said. "I think it's very similar to the piano, but I've felt the piano keeps you closed in, away from the audience, especially in this scenario, on stage. The accordion allows you to be closer in with the audience, and I like that." » Kennedy Center, South Plaza, Millennium Stage, 2700 F Street NW; Tue., Sept. 9, 6 p.m., free; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom-GWU).

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