Juan Gabriel’s concert Sunday at EagleBank Arena was the kind of massive spectacle you would have seen on a Latin variety show from the ’90s. There was an opera singer wearing a floor-length beauty-pageant dress, a mariachi band heaving instruments to complex choreography, a leggy dancer gyrating in sequins and feathers, and a grandiose Spanish guitar interlude.
At the center of it all was Mexico’s 65-year-old pop and ranchera star. Although he shared the stage with about 20 other musicians and backup singers, it was hard to miss the self-proclaimed “divo de Juarez” in a ruffled white shirt and his signature smudges of black eyeliner. But in case you did miss him, Gabriel was the one deploying nonstop theatrics, curling his hands and stomping his feet in the pantomime of a flamenco dancer and blowing dramatic kisses to the highest risers.
The hammy showman has a habit of touching his hand over his heart and calling his fans his “amores.” His audience eats it up and dotes on him, and it’s not just because Gabriel’s music has dominated Latin airwaves since the ’70s. Fans connect to the singer’s surprisingly humble beginnings. The youngest of 10 children, he grew up in an orphanage after his single mother couldn’t afford to raise him. Gabriel sold tortillas on the streets and belted out songs he’d written in a throaty wail just right for heartbroken rancheras and mariachi-inspired pop. After moving to Mexico City at 21, he caught the attention of RCA Records and released the first of 15 albums.
The grit and vibrato of his voice works best on scorned-lover anthems such as “Ya No Me Interesas” (“You Don’t Interest Me Anymore”) and “Insensible.” As Gabriel bemoaned shattered romances and women who have done him wrong, no one questioned the man in makeup’s sexuality, which has been the subject of tabloid gossip for years.
The three-hour set was dotted with older tunes that offered the older audience members a chance to briefly relive their younger days. But it was Gabriel who wanted to turn back time more than anyone. “Just for 15 minutes,” he told the audience before diving into his first hit, “No Tengo Dinero” (“I’ve Got No Money”).
It seemed like a straightforward rendition, but nothing Gabriel does is without drama. Two rappers from the Colombian outfit Zona Prieta flew onto the stage to update the tune with some reggae. Any other grandfather-age singer may have been out of his element, but suddenly Gabriel was by their side, sweating profusely and popping his hips along with them. It was over the top and slightly outrageous, but that’s everything he isn’t afraid to be.
Lopez is a freelance writer.