Review: Lila Downs @ Southbank Centre (London, 1st June 2016)

Southbank Centre aptly kicked off the arrival of summer with a fiery and warm performance by Mexican-American multiple Grammy award winner Lila Downs. Although Downs is known primarily for her powerful vocals and invigorating live performances, she is also a key figure in the activism for Latin America’s indigenous peoples, and uses her songs as social commentaries on various issues, such as migration, heritage, heartache and freedom.

The crowd’s excited buzz before the show already made it clear how the relationship between Downs and her audience is truly a special one. Despite the enormity and formality of a venue as big as the Royal Festival Hall, the fourth wall was immediately broken after Downs’ grand entrance, shrinking the hall down into a more intimate space. The crowd absolutely loved her, shouting praise and yelling conversations in Spanish with her from as far up as the balcony, while those nearer the front clambered to pass her gifts – some jumping on stage with Mexican flags while others sat back, enjoying the bottle of tequila that Downs had used earlier to ceremoniously open the show in accordance with native traditions.

While Downs was clearly the star of the show, each of her band members proved excellent musicians as well, shown particularly when Downs challenged keyboardist (Leo Soqul) and trombonist (Geogre Saenz Jr) to a humorous and virtuosic accordion duel, resulting in peals of laughter from the audience.

Although her host of awards is proof enough of her outstandingly versatile voice (in fact, towards the end, Downs was presented with the Songlines Music Award for her album Balas y Chocolate), her live performances further demonstrate her excellence as a storyteller as well, narrating the hardships but also the strong resilient spirit that unites Mexicans. Within just two hours, Downs managed to constantly reinvent herself physically and vocally according to the mood of her songs – from donning a black veil and taking on a ghostly operatic voice for the haunting La Llorona, to dancing in her colourful Mexican rebozo and sombrero, belting out remarkably long notes within her three-octave vocal range, while accompanying herself on the guitar. Even her covers of English ballads like the Blue Nile’s I Would Never took on a new meaning, as if it were a hymn for Mexico, with Downs driving home her main message that in the face of hardships and suffering, it is love that will always prevail.

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