Chatter in Spanish filled the air at the Santa Barbara Bowl Saturday night, and family members, young and old, were linked arm in arm as they climbed the hill to the venue. On their way up, attendees were getting a preview of Lila Downs’ Day of the Dead concert: colorful papel picado and ofrendas lined up the path.
There were no openers for the Mexico-born multi-Grammys winner, as she glided onto stage on time at 7 p.m. Her opener was “Las Marmotas,” a song about rising above revenge and malice. Right off the bat, Ms. Downs was hitting the a wide variety of notes that she is known for.
“I’m an eagle. I see falsehood from afar,” Ms. Downs sings, while the Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company danced around her. The dance company, however, had plenty of folks in the crowd who was accompanying them. Even with the chairs set up on the ground floor, families and friends were dancing around them. Some even danced to their seats while they were looking for them.
The energy at Ms. Downs’ concert stemmed mainly from families, some of whom traveled from Oxnard to see Ms. Downs perform. They knew all the words to the songs Ms. Downs sang, some of which were classics.
“We brought you some beautiful songs that are about the festive side of Mexico, because when we put our alter up, we got to sing to our muertitos. We got to sing to our little dead ones,” said Ms. Downs. “It’s a musical offering for our ancestors and for all of you in Santa Barbara, California.”
This musical offering included jovial tracks such as “La Iguana” and melancholy ones such as “La Martiniana,” which is a Zapotec poem. In this musical offering, there was only one song in English: Gillian Welch’s “Dear Someone.”
The first song that demonstrated that the crowd was there to full-heartedly celebrate Day of the Dead was “Cruz de Olvido,” whose every word the crowd knew by heart. The audience sang along with Ms. Downs while swaying with their families.
The audience also got a taste of chilis: Ms. Downs sang “Son del Chile Frito,” in which she expresses the cravings she has for different types of chillies that are used throughout the Mexican diaspora. As she sang the spicy song, a video played behind her, showing a woman grinding down chillies to make, what appears to be, mole sauce.
Ms. Downs’ version of “Los Caminos de la Vida” showcased the songbird’s multilingual prowess, as she sang parts of the classic in one of the several indigenous languages she speaks. The song, after all, is one that folks across all cultural barriers can relate to in which a disillusioned narrator shares how life is not as expected.
Ms. Downs sang “Cariñito,” the song she is well-known for, toward the end, but the ending song was “Zapata Se Queda,” which was requested loudly by some members of the crowd. After she sang “Zapata Se Queda,” the audience chanted “Otra, otra, otra,” begging Ms. Downs for more. When she came back out with the Mariachi Femenil Flores Mexicanas, the crowd erupted into cheers.
The night ended with “Mezcal con Cafe,” a song celebrating the Oaxacan way of taking coffee with a bit of mezcal.
The next city on Ms. Downs’ tour agenda is Costa Mesa, before she flies back to Mexico City to circuit through Mexico. She will return to the U.S. in March.