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Weather or Not, Emilio Manages to Shine

July 29, 1996|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — It was as if a variety of elements--both natural and man-made--were conspiring against Emilio on Friday night. But the Tejano-superstar-turned-country-freshman overcame travel delays and a freak outburst of bad July weather to turn in a crowd-pleasing performance at the Orange County Fair in the second of two shows he was scheduled to perform that night. (The earlier concert was canceled.)

Rescued from his broken-down tour bus in Bakersfield, the 33-year-old, seven-time Tejano Male Entertainer of the Year made it to the venue nearly three hours late--and about half an hour past the scheduled start of his second show--then had to contend with menacing rain clouds, clapping thunder and flashes of lightning at the fair's outdoor Arlington Theater.

But none of those obstacles were enough to stop this charismatic and versatile bilingual Texan, who alternated between songs sung in Spanish and English in a nearly two-hour set that showcased his crisp, sometimes raspy baritone voice.

Since his mostly English country album "Life Is Good" debuted last October, Emilio has toured 31 states, straddling the worlds of Tejano, where he's a king, and country music, where he's a promising initiate. Typically, he tailors his shows to the audience: for Latino-dominated audiences he performs mostly accordion-driven Tejano selections sung largely in Spanish; for more musically mainstream, mixed audiences he often emphasizes his bilingual country leanings. Although country music dominated at Friday's concert, Emilio also played several Tejano songs and covers, including an inspired, sometimes growling rendition of the Eagles' "Hotel California."

The worst parts of the program came when he opted to do straight country numbers such as "Even if I Tried," "Honky Tonk Habits" and "Any Little Lie." Those songs came out sounding stiff and studio-like, while Emilio's natural San Antonio twang struggled to be heard, eventually winning out and becoming increasingly evident with each country number he played.

His Tejano material, cruder and less stringent by comparison, stuck to the hits that made him famous, including "Como Le Hare" ("How I'd Do It") from his 1992 "Unsung Highways" album.

"Rama de Mesquita," off Emilio's 1992 live album, was a high mark--allowing his band, Grupo Rio, to show off. The song's jazzy undertones led to improvisational solos by most of the band's members.

Raul Navaira, Emilio's brother and backup vocalist, fueled much of the concert's considerable showmanship. Raul, who writes most of Emilio's Tejano material, invented the herky-jerky "Emilio Shuffle" that fans love so much. And the duo demonstrated this hip-jolting, Chubby Checker-influenced swagger through most of the evening's fast-paced songs.

At the close of the show--like a torero after a bullfight, or a wrangler having lassoed a bronco--Emilio shook his hip one final time, then waved his hat to the audience. It might have been a perfect exit, had it not come after an encore in which the singer reprised two songs done earlier in the evening.

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