Juan Luis' La Travesia tour a reason to celebrate the journey

Dominican Juan Luis Guerra has been a star for almost 20 years. But as suggested by the title of his latest tour, La Travesia, The Journey, which opened at a packed AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday night with images of a flying plane, he's still in flight.

Guerra may be a fixture in the Latin pop world, but that doesn't make him dated. Juan Luis (he's a first-name-only star) distills the joyful essence of his island's music - merengue, bachata, perico ripiao - and lifts it up to a universal level. There were as many Colombians, Venezuelans, and Cubans as Dominicans there on Saturday, singing along on almost 20-year-old hits like Bachata Rosa and Ojala Que Llueva Cafe and dancing, sometimes barefoot, in the aisles.

Guerra's appeal is all in his music. The towering, gangly songwriter, in jeans, black jacket, and trademark beret, spoke very little, with no booty shaking or star posturing. He doesn't need it.

Backed by a terrific 18-piece band with enough energy to power the airplane shown onscreen at the opening, Guerra makes Latin pop at its best: exuberant, rich, with irresistible merengue swing and an achingly lovely melodic sweetness that's all his.

It's sophisticated and populist: you could hear jazz harmonies, West African guitar, and gorgeous arrangements. But the six-piece horn section could punch through concrete, and the six percussionists played more bpm than any computerized electronica and with a million times more swing.

Guerra's music is popular because it speaks to the way his audience really feels. The extravagantly poetic lyrics of his love songs radiate emotion. In Burbujas de Amor (Bubbles of Love), his enormous 1990 hit, he wants to be a fish swimming in his lover, "drenched in you." It drips with sensuality, but it also captures something essential and pure about love. Guerra sang it as a quiet acoustic number, and the crowd almost drowned him out singing ecstatically along.

He introduced Si Tu No Bailas Conmigo (If You Don't Dance With Me) by explaining it was written for his wife and the many times she'd asked him to dance and he didn't want to. "If you don't dance with me, then I'd rather not dance, " he sang. Simple, but done with such melody and feeling it could make you weep.

Guerra has always sung about the troubles of his gente - his music has been called merengue with a message - and some of his older songs have new resonance now, whether El Niagra en Bicicleta, which compares going to a public hospital in Santo Domingo with trying to cross the famous falls on a bicycle, or El Costo de la Vida (The Cost of Living), where the price of beans, gasoline, everything keeps going impossibly up, and no one in power cares.

Guerra's sense of social consciousness has become trendy. Ojala Que Llueva Cafe (Let It Rain Coffee) talks about the longings of poor people in the countryside, conjuring up beautiful images of waterfalls and hills of food and drink. Onscreen, images of other stars, like Juanes, Ricky Martin, Carlos Vives, Alejandro Sanz and Paulina Rubio, were interspersed with pictures of leaping, smiling children.

Yet even when he sings about serious subjects, Guerra keeps a sense of humor and of celebration in the face of difficulty, part of what makes his music so appealing. It's something else that audience loves about him.

They screamed when he opened his encore with Visa Para Un Sueno (Visa For a Dream), his classic about Dominicans going to the U.S. and looking for "a visa for a reason to be." Just like Guerra's music, it offers a reason to keep dancing and keep going.

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