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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Chavela Vargas: At Carnegie Hall

Chavela Vargas
At Carnegie Hall
Tommy Boy

I love live recordings. I know there are people who don’t. “That 1968 recording of Sutherland singing Lakmé?” they’ll say. “The one that lets you know every single time the audience coughed or blew their noses? I nearly went mad. I buy an album to listen to the musicians, not the pack of talentless bastards watching them.”

The members of the audience on At Carnegie Hall don’t cough or blow their noses. They cheer. The album has barely begun before they start cheering. They whistle and clap and whoop. It’s 58 seconds into the first track before we get to hear Chavela Vargas open her mouth. Forty seconds later the audience cheer again. And this is nothing compared to “Volver, Volver” when they go fully sick and start singing along as well. “Y Volver, volver, volver,” they sing. “To return, to return, to return!” The song is ostensibly a lament over a lost lover, but they turn it into a celebration. Vargas drops out of one of the choruses and leaves it up to them and they find themselves singing the words alone and then they shout in delight! They’re helping Chavela Vargas!

I’ve listened to the album a number of times now and I’m still not tired of that sing-along. It’s one of those high moments at a concert when the musician and the audience are connected and everybody is thinking excitedly, “Listen to us! We really are wonderful.”

Why the cheering, why the celebration? Well, Vargas is a bit of an octogenarian legend, and, not only are you not likely to get the chance to sing along with a legend, you’re even less likely to get to sing along with one who’s 84. She’s old enough to have shagged Frida Kahlo. She’s known for the passion of her singing. Once, according to rumour, she hurt her leg jumping out of a window for the love of a woman who wouldn’t love her back. She wore men’s clothes onstage and sang men’s love songs to the women in the audience. A few years ago she came formally out of the closet, astonishing precisely no one. Her face in photographs is soft and fissured. In one picture she has her mouth open, her arms out, a red kerchief tied in a knot around her neck, and the background is coloured red. She’s emoting with so much intensity that she looks like Dracula.

The sweetness of her younger voice has disappeared. It used to dip smoothly, now it creaks; and when she growls with feeling, it rasps. She sounds as if she’s been drinking wet concrete and eating tin cans. She sounds like an old woman. She doesn’t try to hide it, she doesn’t try to seem young, she bellows like an old woman, she shouts like an old woman filled with gusto. A different 80-something singer might have you thinking, “Well now, bless the old dear, isn’t it nice that she’s keeping herself busy?” but Vargas is so fully wrapt in her age that there’s nothing to patronise, although people who are used to the sound of her sweeter voice might be shocked at the change and feel unable to do anything but pity her.

The emotion that she used to put into her performances is still there however, and it’s this that makes the album work. She can still do a killer “La Llorona”. Her voice rolls down into a vale of tears and then begins to whisper and you have to be glad that microphones have been invented because the intimacy of this whisper is wonderful. “Ay!” she exclaims huskily in an undertone, “de mi Llorona, Llorona, Llorona!” Then without warning she’s furious. “Si ya te he dado la vida, Llorona! Que mas quieres, quieres mas!” I’ve given you my life, Llorona, what more do you want? You want more!

Her next number gets the crowd laughing. The audience gives At Carnegie Hall a joyful energy, but their reactions are so overwhelming that they become yours as well. They don’t give you the chance to feel your way through the songs on your own. This is an album for someone who wants to imagine what it was like to watch her in a very specific place, on a very specific night, and not for anyone who wants to sink into introspective Vargas-y contemplation.

For that you’d need one of her other albums. If you haven’t heard her younger voice then it might be fun to get hold of a less recent one, just to make a comparison. You’ll come back to At Carnegie Hall with completely new ears. “She used to sound like that?” You might think that the people in this audience are idiots for cheering at a broken voice. You might prefer raw, bitey, old Vargas to young Vargas. You might not know what to think. See? Fun.

RATING 7 / 10