The growing list of major artists you are surprised to see play at the Santa Barbara Bowl grew by one on Saturday night. The shamelessly romantic, shamelessly entertaining Mexican singer Luis Miguel is a global phenom who plays in soccer stadiums, arenas and amphitheaters in Mexico, the U.S. and Europe. For his Santa Barbara debut, Miguel downsized to a mere 4,500 seat hall, full to the brim.
After having made multi-platinum albums and scooped up Grammy awards going back more than a decade, Miguel has been a part of the international pop landscape, with a special place in the Latin music scene. His latest album has the age-revealing title "33", from which much of Saturday's set came. A singer whose star rose dramatically while still a teenager, Miguel is still young blood, as romantic icons go.
But he has also been around long enough to watch the musical landsacpe shift around him. His sentimental pop sound, which mixes heated ballads and post-disco groovers sometimes reminiscent of old Peter Cetera songs and other lite rock models, may be out of touch with the current, more adventurous Latin pop direction. On his own terms, though, Miguel is a dynamic old-school performer whose handsome visage (with three, coun'em, costume changes), suave stage presence and a strong voice seemingly incapable of mistakes, still soars in the live arena.
Saturday's performance had all the right elements in place for a slick, professional display of musical goods. A tight 11-piece backup band provided unerring, just-like-the-record support for Miguel's vocals. The stage set included square columns with faux torches and garlands. Giant video screens displayed different visual effects and such imagery as rolling ocean waves and a furling Mexican flag, usually flanking a huge central screen with the singer's looming, dreamy-eyed face.
Unfortunately, this night Miguel was unahppy with the monitor mix in his earpieces, and made numerous gestures of exasperation to the monitor mixer in the wings. Meanwhile, the sound in the house was near-perfect, as clean as the musical execution. And frustration didn't keep Miguel from delivering a great show, or from pressing flesh with women in the front row. The woman sitting next to me, a avowed Miguel fan, explained that he had seemed much more relaxed the night before in Las Vegas. Not incidentallly, Miguell's Vegas credentials are in order, as neatly-dressed big-voiced romantic.
New songs like the upbeat "Con Tus Besos" and the earnestly, Chicago- esque ballad "Devuelveme El Amor," with its jazzy keyboard, gained in power live and in person. Delivering the new material is high on the agenda, but Miguel swerved back over the story so far, covering older songs in medleys and drawing generous audience for songs from his acclaimed 1997 bolero project, "romances."
Other crowd favorites in the 90-minutes set included "Que Nivel De Mujer" and "La Media Vuelta."
For an encore, Miguel pulled out another new tune, "Te Necesito."
Oddly, he stopped the band for a long pause just before the end of the tune, a space into which the crowd noise swelled, before he laid down the son'gs final syllable. He slipped off stage at 9:54 pm, too late for a second encore, given the 10 pm curfew. By then, we had gotten a polished impassioned earful from a romantic legend.