Spanish pop-rock quintet Jarabe de Palo is one of those bands that make you remember where you were the first time you heard them. Their songs are fun when you’re up, and cheer you up when you’re down.
Their breakthrough mega-hit was “La Flaca,” a song about a trip to Cuba and a seductive – and apparently skinny – singer, on the band’s 1996 debut album of the same name. It’s annoyingly catchy, but 16 years later, it’s still fun to sing.
“Depende,” from their second album, released in 1998, is another song that doesn’t get moldy no matter how many times you hear it.
One of the many talents of charismatic frontman Pau Donés, who got his start playing in small clubs in Barcelona, Spain, is the ability to craft melodic songs out of simplistic chords by adding diverse styles and phrasings that come with a dash of Cuban flavor, blues, jazz and world pop, accompanied by a unique voice that is sometimes sultry, sometimes sad and always bohemian.
And, thankfully, they’re just as good live.
Jarabe de Palo returned to Costa Rica on May 2 for their first show here in nine years, playing to a packed-to-the-gills crowd at Club Vertigo, in western San José. Promoters oversold the show, it was sweltering hot and maneuvering your way to the bathroom was as impossible as making it to the bar for a bottle of water. (I’d add how many tickets were sold, or what the capacity of the venue is, but no one seemed to know.)
Nevertheless, the band delivered a high-energy, nearly two-hour set that was tight, danceable and immensely entertaining.
“I don’t know why we waited so long to come back,” Donés declared early on. “We don’t either,” answered back a crowd of mostly 20-somethings who had lined up for blocks and waited for hours along San José’s Paseo Colón.
Donés and company kicked off the night with “Yep!” the first track on their latest album, “¿Y ahora qué hacemos?” released in March 2011.
Jarabe de Palo is too big of a band for such a small venue (last year they packed New York’s Central Park and sold out shows in other major U.S. cities, along with plenty of other dates during a 60-stop 2011 tour). But the group’s focus on a stripped-down performance without expensive visual effects, combined with the forced intimacy of concertgoers piled on top of each other, made for a night of camaraderie and musical solidarity, with Donés launching himself into the crowd at one point for some short-lived crowd surfing.
Drummer Alex Tenas seemed lost in a world that only drummers understand, perpetually grinning, feeding off the music and communicating with band mates through oft-closed eyes. Bassist and backup singer Carmen Niño, guitarist Riki Frouchtman and Cuban saxophonist Jimmy Jenks sounded like a New York jazz-club house band, trading off smoking tenor sax and Telecaster solos above a swelling, rhythmic and bluesy punch that reminded us where rock-n-roll comes from (although Jenks’ use of smooth jazz’s soprano sax throughout the night was a little too close to Kenny G to fit with the band’s grittier pop-rock).
By the third song of the night, “Romeo y Julieta,” in which Donés tells a melancholic, heartbroken woman in a bar that “Romeo and Juliet weren’t from this planet,” the crowd was hooked, singing along and shaking whichever body parts weren’t log-jammed in the crowded mass.
By the fifth song, “Depende,” everyone had given up hope of staying dry, and Donés turned over singing duties to his multitude of followers, who obliged by belting out lyrics from start to finish while recording YouTube moments on their iPhones.
Fourteen songs in, Jarabe de Palo were more than relevant with their 1998 hit “Agua,” which is about unrequited love. But given the circumstances, a literal interpretation was more useful: “…cuando uno tiene sed, pero el agua no está cerca” (“When you’re thirsty, but there’s no water to be found”).
Jarabe de Palo performed a total of 21 songs from their 12-album collection, ending the night with an encore of “Duerme conmigo”: “Busco un lugar en esta ciudad, donde esconderme de la corriente que me lleva” (“I’m looking for a place in the city where I can hide from the current that carries me”); and “Grita”: “y si quieres más pues, grita!” (“And if you want more, then shout!”).
And shout we did.
Jarabe de Palo May 2 Set List
Club Vertigo, San José, Costa Rica
En lo puro no hay futuro
Romeo y Julieta
¿Y ahora qué hacemos?
De vuelta y vuelta
La quiero a morir
Dos días en la vida
El lado oscuro
Me gusta como eres
El bosque de palo cantamañanas
La Flaca (acoustic)