Sit yourself down at a Raul Malo concert and there is no telling where the singer — or the multi-stylistic, multi-cultural music that has so long distinguished his career — will take you.
The performance might employ the vast Nashville inspirations that played into the epic country music he created in the '80s and '90s with The Mavericks. From there, you might hear the joyous, brassy Cuban sounds that surrounded him in his youth. Or there might be a Roy Orbison-esque pop ballad that spotlights the range and emotive power of his singing.
And the repertoire? Try the Americana and Tex-Mex-flavored originals that have been sprinkled throughout the half-dozen solo albums he has issued over the past decade. Or if you prefer covers, consider the greats whose music Malo has recorded or performed: Van Morrison, Bob Wills, The Hollies, Creedence Clearwater Revival and, of course, Orbison.
What does such a versed and versatile dossier tell us about the artist who created it? For starters, it reveals that Malo, 46, is above all else as big a fan of contemporary music as he is a career participant.
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"That's really it," said Malo, who will perform a sold-out concert Wednesday at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. "I'm first and foremost a fan of music.
"Ever since I was a kid, I was just glued to the record player," he said. "I took advantage of every chance I got to buy records. I would save allowances to buy Elvis records every week.
"I still remember when I first heard Elvis' It's Now or Never. I thought that was the greatest rock 'n' roll record I ever heard. It just blew my mind. But it blew my mind even more when my mom showed me it was actually an Italian aria (O Sole Mio, which remains part of Malo's performance repertoire to this day). It was like, 'There you go. There is a connection with all of this music.' It all started from there."
Born in Miami to Cuban parents, Malo first saw the connections and stylistic links among musical styles while sifting through the family record collection. That process, to a degree, played into the wildly diverse title tune to his most recent solo album, 2010's Sinners and Saints. The song blends surf-style guitar, brassy Mariachi accents and, as always, Malo's soaring vocals. But the initial inspiration was flamenco music.
"I remember going back through these old flamenco records my mom had," Malo said. "That was the first music I heard as a kid. I just kept playing this melody on the acoustic guitar, just this little riff. When you combined the flamenco stuff with the electric guitar, it starts to sound like a surf band.
"I guess I've always related to music in that way. I've always tried to find the common thread with all of it. To me, it's all related. You're still coming from a creative place. You're creating from a blank canvas and trying different colors. Painters do that. Why can't songwriters? Songwriting is a little more methodical than that, certainly. But still, that sort of approach makes sense to me."
Such stylistic sensibility might explain the music Malo explores, but what of the singing behind it? In discussing the clear, commanding and near-operatic power of his voice, Malo turns humble — even downplaying his expansive range and emotive clarity.
"People mistake the voice," Malo said. "I hear so many nice, wonderful comments after our shows from people about how the music affects them in different ways. But the truth is that the really good performers are like actors in that we get to act these songs out.
"Granted, some are better than others. Take Sinatra. He didn't live every song he sang, but he sure made you think he did. People like to connect with this music and, to a degree, romanticize it. They go, 'Well, he lives all these songs he sings.' And that's not necessarily true. Some singers, like Sinatra, are able to emote all of that. I don't know what that quality is. I wouldn't simply call it talent. It's a gift."
Up next for Malo is a step into the past: a reunion with The Mavericks that will include international touring and the possibility of a new recording.
"I never really thought this would happen. It's not that there were any personal differences between us or whatever. But there has to be some support in a real, genuine way.
"We wanted to retire with a little dignity. But I guess there are always going to be a couple of lunatics that want The Mavericks back together. Luckily, that interest is real. So we're going to have some fun, hopefully make some new music and, of course, play all of the old stuff. We're going to give the people what they want.
"I mean, why not?"