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Juan Gabriel is back onstage

Times Staff Writer

There have been few things in pop music over the last two decades as certain as the fun of a live performance by Mexican pop singer Juan Gabriel. Attending one of his concerts was an annual tradition for legions of fans, as regular as a Cinco de Mayo festival. The tickets could have easily come with a guarantee: Gabriel would pour his heart into his hits for at least two hours -- or your money back.

That tradition was interrupted two years ago, however, when Gabriel became entangled in a complex lawsuit with his powerful agency, formerly Hauser Entertainment of Pico Rivera. The legal skirmish prevented him from touring as usual and temporarily sidetracked a career launched in 1971 with the bouncy, carefree “No Tengo Dinero,” which basically means “I’m Broke.”

Gabriel, 54, who lost his civil suit, finally returned to local stages over the weekend with shows Friday at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim and Saturday at Staples Center. This time, instead of a guarantee there could have been a disclaimer: Performer returning to action after all the stress, pay up to $150 per ticket at your own risk.

But the singer-songwriter, backed by about 30 musicians, did not disappoint. For 2 1/2 hours Saturday, he hammed it up while belting out a marathon set of 29 of his songs, almost one for every year he’s been in show business. The delighted, near-capacity crowd sang along with almost every word, their eager, admiring faces often projected on two overhead video screens.

Gabriel did not mention his legal troubles during the show. In November, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered that the singer pay the agency, which had counter-sued, $1.9 million by splitting revenue from 45 concerts over the next two years.

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If the bitter conflict bothered Gabriel, he gave no sign of it. In his dark business suit and buttoned-up vest, he looked a little heavier, his face swollen, his eyes puffy under heavy makeup. But he danced nimbly and he dramatized songs of lost love and revenge with the vivid, occasionally lurid gestures that are his trademark -- part mariachi macho and part flamboyant queen.

A crowd-pleasing highlight is always watching Gabriel tell off his two-timing lover in the catty “Inocente Pobre Amigo” (Poor Deluded Friend), which he deliciously extends to more than seven minutes. You can almost see his cheating mate onstage as we cheer the singer’s attempt to rise above humiliation and righteously assert his self-respect.

There were times during the concert when Gabriel’s voice seemed more hoarse than usual and his energy level not up to par. But even on an off night, Gabriel works hard for his money.

Most fans don’t quibble. They just love the chance to take part in a communal sing-along with their star, who turned his hard-luck, border boyhood into a fabulously successful career, blending American pop and country with Mexican rancheras. Like all great pop music, Gabriel’s lighthearted tunes serve as melodic markers by which people remember their own lives and loves.

Oddly, however, Gabriel closed with the beautiful but achingly sad ballad “Amor Eterno” (Eternal Love). The down note left people waiting for an upbeat encore that never came.

He could have closed instead with that bouncy first hit that established the beloved artist as someone who makes the best of life’s misfortunes: “I have no money and nothing to offer; the only thing I have is love to give.”


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