Maná can be counted on for effervescent, tidily choreographed, Latinized pop-rock. If this sounds like faint praise, let us add that few bands keep such a doggedly watchful eye on vulnerable species. The Mexican foursome cares deeply about the environment, specifically aquatic environments, and even maintains a nonprofit called the Selva Negra Foundation (est. 1995).
As soon as the lights dimmed at the band’s United Center show, images of marine life, of straggling sea turtles, flickered across a balmy blue LED wall. A giant, inflatable turtle hung from the rafters. No, this wasn’t perversely symbolic. Maná’s performance on Saturday night was anything but sluggish — or turtlelike, as it were.
In a word, Maná is professional. Saturday’s preshow warm-up music — “Solsbury Hill,” “In Your Eyes” — was a misstep, though, because no one comes to a Maná gig for hoity-toity art pop. (Tellingly, the medley of Peter Gabriel tunes was eventually drowned out by impatient whistling.) The Maná formula boils down to brawny, multitracked hooks, swooning verses and spanking clean riffs courtesy of Sergio Vallín, the band’s leopard print-clad lead guitarist.
Frontman Fher Olvera isn’t one to overextend himself. Why should he? What more does this decorated bandleader, possibly the award-winningest bandleader in the Spanish-speaking world, have to prove? Olvera’s live show is unphysical, or at least unathletic. He doesn’t stalk the stage like a madly lurching acrobat; the most he’ll do is bob contentedly or pantomime a swimmer at sea. But having toured the whole of the Western Hemisphere, Olvera is a master of crowd work. He alternates second-naturedly between acoustic, electric and rhythm guitar. Just as impressive is his instinctual rapport with audiences. Olvera keeps them buzzing with harmonica breakdowns, drinking exhibitions and gently comedic Spanish monologues. Fine, so the 63-year-old cuts an amusing figure; his bedazzled apparel is loud, his jeans alarmingly snug. This doesn’t detract at all from the Maná experience.
At one point, the show was turned over to drummer Alex González, a tongue-wagging free spirit whose solo pyrotechnics were a joy to behold, however show-offy. It was a relief, though, when the band reassembled en masse on a small, crimson-carpeted dais opposite the main stage., There is strength in numbers. The best moments of the night were invariably antiphonal: What this reporter wouldn’t give to relive the exultant call-and-response madness of “No ha parado de Llover” and “Como te deseo.”
Maná shows are essentially monolingual; hardly a word of English escaped Olvera’s lips on Saturday. The crowd itself appeared to be majority-Mexican, with many attendees hoisting Mexican flags, though other parts of Latin America were fitfully represented. Enough older folks and married couples were present to constitute a bare majority. But young men in fitted tees? Puckery-lipped selfie queens in artfully ripped jeans? They turned out in larger numbers than one might expect. Young and old alike are susceptible to Maná’s charms.
“I was introduced (to Maná) through a guy who has since passed away,” said one 37-year-old concert-goer. “But my wife had been a fan for even longer — since she was about 15. She was like, ‘You’ve gotta see these guys live.’”
The United Center crowd was majorly footloose, and even the non-dancers in attendance never stayed seated for long. It’s only right that Maná covered “Get Up, Stand Up,” the Wailers’ scintillating reggae standard from 1973. “Get Up, Stand Up” has a prurient groove, but the lyrics — a furious indictment of colonial plunder — mean business. Maná means business too. For all its slick professionalism, the band has a substantive message to impart. You can count on that.
M.T. Richards is a freelance writer.