Juan Gabriel Celebrates His Mexico In Houston

Juan Gabriel
Toyota Center
November 15, 2015

When was the last time that you cried? About anything? About nothing? Maybe you saw one of those military homecoming videos on YouTube. Or dropped your taco. Or fell in love, but the other person didn't feel the same way about you. Crying is something that can be both agonizing and joyous, but it is almost always emotionally cleansing.

Last night at Toyota Center, I cried. I knew Juan Gabriel was going to sing the song "Amor Eterno," his supremely melancholic tribute to his mother, and tried to hold back my tears when those first notes filled the air. I even made it past the first stanza of the song without letting out the waterworks.  But when he pushed all of his emotion into the line "yo sé que pude haber yo hecho más por tí" (I know I could have done more for you), I lost it. Like Gabriel, I also received the news of my mom's passing when we were thousands of miles apart, and the feelings of helplessness and despair haunt me to this day. This song...more than any prayers or photos or anything else, it helps me remember and honor her. I find it absolutely amazing how music can have that effect.

But there is so much more to Gabriel's show than sadness. There is pride, comedy, drinking, striptease, and so much dancing. Gabriel is one of the most prolific composers ever of Mexican popular music, and by his own accord has been working his craft for almost 45 years. His set list last night was more than 30 songs deep (with one or two medleys thrown in as well), and he still left out some of his most popular songs like La Farsante and many more. His stage show is something spectacular, akin to a Las Vegas revue with teams of dancers and guest stars and musicians all participating in the performance. He is like the Mexican equivalent to Elvis, Liberace, and Frank Sinatra combined, inspiring the same type of love and fanaticism from his audience.

As I walked down towards the stage, the mariachi band has already begun to play a few Mexican classics to warm up the crowd with chants of "Viva Mexico!" sounding off all through the building. There may have been a handful of tickets left at the box office, but the arena was packed from floor to ceiling with JuanGa fans (that's the singer's nickname).  Once Gabriel walked confidently onto center stage, everyone cheered in appreciation. All he could do in response was smile and express his thankfulness, basking in the adoration and seemingly transforming that love into energy for the three-hour long show.

According to Juan Gabriel expert Xochil Melissa Villarruel, who was gracious enough to accompany me to the show, JuanGa "tenia cuerda" last night. Translated into modern terms, that roughly means that he was "turnt up". "He was so wound up that he wouldn't stop dancing" said Villarruel. "Its like he wanted more and more and more.... and so did we!"

The night began with the track "Por Que Me Haces Llorar (Why Do You Make Me Cry)." How appropriate. The mariachi orchestra sounded downright cinematic in its delivery, with smooth strings and bright trumpets conveying every bit of love and lust that traveled along JuanGa's compositions and lyrics. Back in the media room, one of the reporters referred to Gabriel as a "bit of a drama queen". I literally laughed out loud and said "He's more like the definition of a drama queen! He doesn't hold the name "El Divo de Juarez" for nothing!"

JuanGa is certainly flamboyant, but also very masculine, which is why he stands alone and apart from someone like the ultra-macho Vicente Fernandez. But maybe that's part of his appeal.... He expresses himself in an honest way, proud of being who he is and without reservations about wearing makeup and eyeliner and fancy clothes. Its all part of the show.

Every song transitioned smoothly into the next, with the band and backup singers and mariachi taking turns at center stage, sometimes dancing in tandem with Gabriel, arms flailing, hips gyrating, and legs kicking. For a man his age and size, JuanGa sure has some motor on him. Its easy to see why he fell off the stage the last time he performed at this arena. He gets so enveloped in the show that he sometimes forgets about boundaries. At one point, I thought he was going to fall on top of me at I was working in the photo pit! Now that would have been a viral YouTube video for sure!

Of course he sang standards such as "La Diferencia," "Costumbres," "No Vale La Pena" and his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero." But the one that I was impressed with was "La Frontera" (The Border)," a track just released last month. The catchy and danceable mexi-country song, also featuring Julion Alvarez and J. Balvin, praises how people who live along the USA-Mexico border are sincere and fun and positive.

And the hits kept coming. Hearing the whole room sing "Querida" was magical, and then "Se Me Olvido Otra Vez" and "Hasta Que Te Conoci" gave us a break from dancing until "El Noa Noa" got everyone back up. He even threw a rap version of "No Tengo Dinero" thrown in the mix.

The world may never see a talent such as Juan Gabriel again, but we can celebrate him as the legend he is while he is here.

Personal Bias: Rest In Peace, #MomFromHouston. I was finally able to see/hear your song live.

The Crowd: Como Mexico no hay dos!

Overheard In the Crowd: "Viva Mexico!"

Random Notebook Dump: I usually take lots of notes on my cell phone when I review concerts. This show was so good, I took very little notes and mostly just sat back and had fun. And really, that's the real reason I do this...

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When he's not roaming around the city in search of tacos and graffiti, Houston Press contributor Marco both writes and points his camera lens toward the vibrant Houston music scene and beyond.