Colombian rock superstar Juanes performs at Staples Center. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
A few songs into Juanes' Sunday night concert at Staples Center, a stooped older man in a red sweater — at least 75 by my reckoning — shuffled into a center aisle and started pumping his fist in the air with the fervor of a guerrilla fighter.
Juanes can have that effect on people. The Colombian rock star has been dubbed the Latin American Bono, and with good reason. Like the mystically rabble-rousing U2 frontman, he has attached himself to a plethora of political and humanitarian causes, particularly those focused on his war-torn South American homeland. In live appearance he seldom misses an opportunity to advocate for land-mine victims or wave the banner of international peace. Time magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2005.
Musically, the comparison with Bono and his post-punk Irish brethren is less apt, as the singer-guitarist reaffirmed in Sunday's show. In truth, Juanes is a lover first, a fighter second. His music pleads with, rather than confronts, his listeners; it high-fives rather than exhorts.
Over the years, the compact, slight-framed artist has traded in his brooding, long-maned, Byronic persona for a sunnier, close-cropped appearance that better suits his buoyantly athletic performative style and natural easygoing charm. Closing fast on 40, but still infused with a boyish earnestness and eagerness to please, Juanes broke no new artistic ground Sunday but left his audience roaring its approval of his numerous hits, rendered by the singer-guitarist and his band with passionate, meticulous professionalism.
Although he earned his rock-god bona fides as a member of the now-defunct heavy metal group Ekhymosis, Juanes as a solo artist has shifted toward a still muscular but less bruising guitar-driven power pop. Many of his signature songs are generously spiked with cumbia, vallenato, reggae and other rhythmic essentials of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, like his Staples show opener "Yerbatero," in which Juanes casts himself as a traditional herbal healer proffering cures for lovesick hearts.
Lately, Juanes has delved deeper into musical styles from outside Latin America. On Sunday, for instance, his band segued into the compulsively catchy romantic teaser "Regalito" (Little Gift) with a wash of sitar-like chords that prefigured the song's South Asian melodic texture. Juanes rocked harder as the evening glided forward, taking longer, more elaborate electric guitar solos up front.
But for the most part he concentrated on connecting to his audience through his vocals, yielding the rest of the stage to his solid, self-effacing players from Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic: Emmanuel Briceno (keyboards), Waldo Madera (drums), Richard Bravo and Andres Alzate (percussion), Pedro Navia (bass), and the two guitarists, Fernando Tobon and Juan Pablo Daza, alternating on acoustic and electric instruments.
Juanes augmented his roughly 90-minute show with a four-song encore including his upbeat, unobjectionable (some might say innocuous) homage to world peace ("Odio Por Amor") and his 2002 hit "A Dios le Pido" (I Ask of God). In his anguished entreaty to the Almighty, the singer prays, "may my country not shed so much blood and may my people rise up."
Juanes' pleasing, populist music is unlikely to inspire the latter event. But the tuneful sincerity with which he voices these sentiments confirms Juanes as the rare pop artist — in company with the likes of Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Shakira — with the power to inspire beyond the arena walls.