By Don Heckman
Lila Downs is a performer in her prime. Her appearance in a UCLA Live program at Royce Hall Thursday night was a stunning display of musical stagecraft. Singing, dancing, engaging her audience in Spanish and English, moving with commanding ease across the stage, she gave a performance that was masterful in every sense. I can’t recall experiencing a comparably impressive, across-the-board presentation by a world music artist since Daniela Mercury’s superlative concert at Royce in 2005.
Downs has come a long way since her first L.A. appearances a decade or so ago. Always fascinating for the authenticity of her explorations through Mexican ranchera music, she revealed — even then — a desire to re-cast traditional styles and themes in a contemporary fashion, without losing their inherent values. She did all that, and more, on Thursday, backed by a superb band led by her husband, saxophonist/arranger Paul Cohen.
Born in Oaxaca to a Mixtec Indian mother — who was also a singer — and an Anglo-American father, raised and schooled in Mexico, California and Minnesota, she has taken on the role of crusader for the Pan American cultures of North America. Toward that end, much of her program was devoted to the eclectic selection of material on her recent album, “Shake Away.”
There was, for example, her spot on version of Lucinda Williams’ blues-drenched ballad, “I Envy the Wind,” sung passionately in Spanish as “Yo Envidio El Viento.” Her own song, “Tierra de Luz” (sung as a duet with Mercedes Sosa on the CD) was delivered with all of Sosa’s dark, intimate intensity. There was more, much more — some so familiar that the audience erupted in cheers at the sounding of the first phrases — all of it sung in a voice that ranged freely from piercing high notes to chest rumbling low tenor sounds. And, the final touch, each number was framed by Downs’ atmospheric costuming and evocative dancing.
Watching this remarkable performance, I couldn’t help but wonder how soon the folks at the Philharmonic will bring Downs back again to the Hollywood Bowl, this time for a mid-summer showcase booking , rather than the all-join-in late September appearance she made in 2008. Performers this convincing, this believable, and this electrifying should be given the best high season visibility.