Lila Downs took her commanding, enchanting post behind the mic at the Fillmore Saturday night, weaving her arms like a serpent amid the dry ice smoke as the tom-toms played the opening strains of "Black Magic Woman." You could already smell the pot.
"Que pasa, San Francisco?" she greeted her audience. "I'd like to dedicate this next song to the beautiful spirits of this amazing Bay Area. You changed the world, man!"
Downs and her eight back-up musicians - hailing from points as varied as Chile, Colombia, and San Francisco's Japantown - entertained a sold-out crowd with a concert inflected by just as many musical influences, the signature stamp of the half-American, half-Mexican musician. The Latino professionals and Frida Kahlo wannabes came out in droves.
In her style that's been sexing it up in recent years while retaining her native influences, Downs came out decked in a Native American patterned strapless top and her signature Oaxacan style tapestry fashioned into a fringed sarong. Add in the leather boots and the two long braids, the effect was that of those big-busted Aztec woman in the painting at a Mexican restaurant near you. Downs donned a baseball cap embroidered with the Virgin de Guadalupe (on sale in the Mission!) to sing "Minimum Wage," a socially conscious song with a Johnny Cash-like back beat executed with very un-Johnny Cash-like maracas.
The funky trombonist added an unexpected treat of the night - a San Francisco native of Chinese and Japanese descent with a wild fro and hot solos. He took a puff of whatever an audience member handed him and, in our book, the prize for Most Eccentric Musician.
While Down's image is that of a self-possessed Mexican woman in the Frida Kahlo cannon, she turned out to be disarmingly playful on stage, pulling from an eclectic dance repertoire: the jubilant prancing of an Aztec tribal dance; tongue out and chicken arms flapping for a Veracruz-style jarocho; sexy Selena-like cumbia steps; the recurring snake arms that are a style of her very own.
"Of course we all know about the beautiful tradition of Mexican drinking songs," she said before launching into a "Paloma Negra." While the calls of "Viva Mexico!" and cries of "ayayay!" could have transported you to a Mexican cantina - Downs broke into tears of emotion by the song's end - the $10 price tag on tequila at the bar brought you back to reality really quick.
Generous with her encores (was it two? three?) that concluded with "La Llorona," Downs sent off her audience with an abundance of Teresa Heinz Kerry-style touches to her chest, saying "Thank you San Francisco! You fill our hearts with love. We'll take you with us!"
The crowd clearly approved.
"I love you, Lila!" yelled one.
"Yo tambien!" yelled another.
Of course, Downs understood them both.
Personal bias: I first heard Downs on the 2002 "Frida" soundtrack, and have been a casual fan ever since.
Random detail: An audience member handed a lily up to Downs on stage, the type captured in many a Diego Rivera painting. Very appropriate.