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Live review: Julieta Venegas at USC's Bovard Auditorium

February 13, 2009 |  6:22 pm

If last night’s chat with Mexican songstress Julieta Venegas was any indication, we can expect spirited mashups, instead of stony speeches, from the USC Annenberg Distinguished Lecture Series on Latin American Art and Culture. If only more “lectures” were this freewheeling, with as many turns on the piano as in the interview seat, then we wouldn’t have ditched class so much.

The inaugural event hosted by series director and vinyl historian Josh Kun was an hour and a half of Venegas taking the adoring crowd -- many of them drawn from local high schools -- through a time line of her creative life. Digressive, giggly and goaded on by her old friend Kuney, as she called him, Venegas shared anecdotes about growing up in Tijuana, listening to her mother sing Jose Jose songs in the car, and later, as a teenager, crossing the border for drive-in movies in San Diego.

The piano, the first of her many instruments that now includes guitar and accordion, was how she differentiated herself as a little girl from her twin sister, Yvonne. So it was fitting that Venegas frequently stopped the chat to plunk herself down before the Bovard Auditorium’s black Steinway.

Most interesting wasn’t what she could play easily -- which was nearly everything from her 11-year-plus career -- but the songs that still make her struggle. She played a somewhat stilted version of "Casa Abandonada" from “Bueninvento,” her 2000 album that she doesn’t play live from very often because she doesn’t feel connected to it. “I feel that I was doing really complicated chords,” she explained. It wasn’t “driven by the story or melody.”

From the critically lauded experimentation of “Bueninvento” came the much more straightforward, melody-driven “Si,” her lovestruck breakthrough which won her a Latin Grammy, the first of many. She recounted how suddenly, at her shows, “girls sang along with the songs.” She had broken through. “I really felt like I was saying something that was mine.”

Venegas, an avid reader, was presented with a sack of 19th century American and British literature; she clutched it to her chest like a little girl. Stories, she said, are inextricable from her music. She writes the lyrics and the music at the same time, using a drum machine to set the tempo. And the rush she gets from writing is like a good workout. "I have adrenaline, endorphins," she said giddily before adding that an hour later that might all disappear when she looks back at what she's written.

One of the key elements to Venegas' musicianship is her broad range of influences, including norteno, lounge, disco and hip-hop. Her favorite party instrument is the accordion, which she says "rocks, in its own nerdy way."

She also played songs from "Limon y Sal," the similarly sunny follow-up to "Si." Her finishing touch on her Los Angeles mini-performance was a rousing version of "Eres Para Mi"; she even filled in the Mala Rodriquez rapping parts with her own sassy fast-talking.

For now, Venegas is exhausted after five years of touring, six months of which she was on her own for last year's "MTV Unplugged" CD and DVD, which featured classics, new songs and obscure tracks, all thoughtfully arranged, or in many cases, rearranged. She's swimming, doing yoga and taking Portuguese lessons at home in Mexico City, but the first stirrings of a new album have set in. She's not writing yet, but she's thinking about it: "Every record, I'm there to go a little further, to open up territory."

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo courtesy USC Annenberg