For years the Colombian rock star Juanes has played for adoring crowds of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. But in front of just 700 people at the New World Symphony’s New World Center, the critically and popularly lauded singer was visibly nervous. And excited. “I’m so happy to be here sharing this dream come true with all of you,” he said.
The Wednesday night performance that put Juanes in front of his smallest audience in years was also one that might bring him one of his biggest – a live recording session of an MTV Unplugged album and video to be released this spring. It was a first for everyone involved: Juanes’ first acoustic concert and album; the first time that Tr3s, MTV, Musica y Mas, the MTV network’s U.S. Hispanic channel based on Lincoln Road, has done a production in a world class caliber concert hall; and the first time the New World Symphony had hosted this kind of recording.
“This is a new audience for us,” New World president Howard Herring said of the squealing, picture-snapping Juanes fans and schmoozing Latin music and media players crowding the lobby. “This will show for this audience and the world what we can do.”
Most recording sessions take place in private over weeks or months, with plenty of time and technology to get everything just so. An Unplugged recording is live and high-risk. MTV Tr3s has done a number of highly successful Unplugged projects with artists including Ricky Martin, Julieta Venegas and Los Tigres del Norte.
Juanes had never performed, let alone recorded, in such a stripped down setting with his voice so exposed. He had been rehearsing for weeks with Juan Luis Guerra, the project’s musical director and producer, himself a major Latin music star and accomplished songwriter.
Still, Juanes’ nerves showed. He began Camisa Negra, one of his biggest hits, with the wrong verse, and had to start over. The audience just laughed, barely skipping a beat as they clapped and sang along so loudly they almost drowned out the band.
While there were plenty of music and media executives in the house, they were upstairs and off camera. The bulk of the crowd filling the floor in front of the stage and the risers around it, close enough to touch the musicians, was made up of eager fans.
“You guys are a part of this,” MTV Tr3s general manager Jose Tillan told them. “Your voice is like one of the instruments. We want him to feel the warmth from you.”
They were happy to bring the heat. Sisters Jessica and Andrea Sanchez, who won tickets through an online promotion, had driven four hours from Port St. Lucie for the show, and were driving back in time for school the next morning. “I haven’t stopped talking about it for a month and I’ve been singing his songs nonstop,” said Jessica, 19. “The fact that I get to see him live and be part of an Unplugged is incredible.”
Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, Juanes started with Fijate Bien, the title track from his 2000 debut CD, and segued into La paga, another early song. Done acoustically, they sounded like bouncy cumbias instead of the driving rockers they are on record.
“This is like returning to the essence of the songs, the way I played them at home since I was little,” he said.
He was joined by his longtime band, with Fernando “Toby” Tobon, normally Juanes’ powerhouse guitar partner, sometimes playing banjo and cuatro. Stepping in and out were a horn section (led by Miami saxophonist Ed Calle), a cellist, a pianist, violinists and, for the finale, a chorus from the University of Miami.
Guerra only stepped on stage at the end, but Juanes thanked him frequently and effusively. The music director’s arrangements transformed the sound and feeling of songs like Volverte a ver (See You Again), a usually-roaring rock anthem that Juanes sang in an aching falsetto accompanied by piano, cello and stand-up bass, channeling the song’s howling energy into a quieter but equally powerful emotion.
The lyrics of two new songs Juanes and Guerra co-wrote, Todo en mi vida eres tu (Everything in My Life is You) and El amor es la señal (Love is the Sign), conflated romantic love and spiritual yearning in trademark Guerra fashion.
Todo, a subtle, jazzy ballad, was one of two songs Juanes had to redo, nailing its iridescent harmonies and meandering melody on the second take. El amor, with its sweet bachata swing, came easier.
The third new track, Azul, was a standout thanks to rakish Spanish legend Joaquin Sabina, who wrote the witty, flirtatious lyrics and swaggered onstage to join Juanes for a jaunty, bluesy duet.
Juanes was stiffer with another guest, the glamorous Paula Fernandes, Brazil’s Shania Twain, but her burnished, golden voice merged beautifully with his on Hoy me voy.
By the finale, It’s time to change (hate for love), crowd swaying, chorus singing gospel harmony, Juanes had settled in and opened up.
“I never dreamed my music could sound like this,” he’d said early on. Seemed like his dream had come true.
Juanes perfoming at Tr3s: MTV's Unplugged at the New World Center on Miami Beach. Photo: Craig Ambrosio