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Pop Music | REVIEW

Drexler proves worthy of spotlight

Snubbed as a performer by producers of the Oscars telecast, the songwriter is a standout in an L.A. concert.

November 11, 2005|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Uruguay's Jorge Drexler, one of Latin America's premiere songwriters, is best known to U.S. audiences as the winner who sang his acceptance speech at this year's Academy Awards ceremony. After being awarded the Oscar for best original song, the inspirational "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" from "The Motorcycle Diaries," the mild-mannered musician sang a 22-second snippet from the tune instead of reciting the usual thank-yous.

It was his genteel protest for not being allowed to perform on the telecast (Antonio Banderas was chosen to sing it), a snub seen as motivated by ratings since he was comparatively unknown here at the time.

Drexler finally got to finish the song during his Los Angeles concert debut Wednesday at the El Rey Theatre. With a good-humored nod to the controversy, he did it entirely a cappella, as if completing that acceptance speech. Surprisingly, though, this was not a high point in the singer's otherwise revelatory 90-minute set. He seemed to rush through the number and appeared slightly ill at ease, in contrast to the almost spiritual rendition he did a few weeks after the Oscars on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Perhaps his apparent skittishness had to do with his empty hands. This was the only point in the show when Drexler put down his acoustic guitar, an instrument he commands with grace and authority. As long as it stayed strapped across his shoulders, he never hit a false note.

Since Drexler performs solo, his playing takes on a much more prominent role than on his beautifully arranged albums, which feature a full complement of musicians. Stripped of studio embellishments, he proved to be a dazzling pop guitarist, in the ranks of great troubadours such as Cuba's Silvio Rodriguez.

Drexler makes up for the lack of backup musicians on stage by programming sounds from a small keyboard synthesizer with an array of nobs and foot pedals. At times, the effect is amazing. On "El Pianista del Gueto de Varsovia," a haunting song based on the book about a Jewish pianist from the Warsaw ghetto (later made into a film by Roman Polanski), he repeatedly looped a vocal phrase to create a ghostly chorus from his own voice.

But occasionally the electronics were distracting, especially when the volume overpowered his live parts.

Ultimately, Drexler's witty and poetic songs were the heart of his show, which featured mostly numbers from his most recent album, the excellent "Eco" (Echo). Like Paul Simon, he can be philosophical, introspective, playful and poignant, all with a literary flair. But Drexler, a physician, also draws on science to make his point, as in "Todo Se Transforma" (All Is Transformed), a clever recycling of the notion that the cosmos is one.

His lyrics often say simple things in original and elegant ways. Time heals in "Se Va, Se Va, Se Fue" (Going, Going, Gone). Love gives direction in "Transporte" (Transport). All life is precious in "Polvo de Estrellas" (Stardust).

Drexler, a descendant of German Jews, introduced one of his few overtly political songs, "Milonga de un Moro Judio" (Song From a Moorish Jew), by noting in accented English that he "wrote it four years ago, before the world started getting more dangerous every day."

He delivered with conviction its powerful message of peace and the absurdity of a religious hatred.

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