Chavela Vargas: At Carnegie Hall

You might think that the people in this audience are idiots for cheering at a raspy voice. You might prefer raw, bitey, old Vargas to young Vargas. You might not know what to think.

Chavela Vargas

At Carnegie Hall

Label: Tommy Boy
US Release Date: 2006-05-02
UK Release Date: 2006-04-25

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.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.