Lila Downs didn't have to ask twice for the audience filling Centennial Hall Wednesday night to get on their feet and fill the aisles.
The invite came midway through the first half of the 2 ½-hour "Dia de los Muertos: Al Chile" UA Presents concert, and if Downs had waited a single minute more, the two women sitting about six rows from the stage surely would have just gotten up on their own.
The pair wriggled through a tangle of outstretched legs so they could freely twirl and whirl along to the infectious "Cariñito."
Downs concert celebrating the dead was a big ole party for the living, complete with folklorico dancers in brilliant Oaxacan-style dresses donning ornate headdresses, an all-female mariachi in the rich tradition of Old Mexico, and dancers bringing forth papier-mache crosses and bowls to remember lost loved ones.
In the dozen or so years that Downs has performed in Tucson, this was her biggest, most elaborate concert. Nearly 30 performers including her eight-piece band and more than a dozen mariachi players filled the Centennial Hall stage, recreating aspects of the traditional Day of the Dead celebrations observed by indigenous Mexico.
"We welcome our dead ones, we welcome our ancestors," Downs announced over soaring trumpet and toe-tapping bongos that put the audience filling Centennial Hall in the mood to celebrate life and lives well lived.
Through the glorious tapestry of her powerful and spirited music, Downs gave us a much deeper insight and understanding into the Day of the Dead traditions we share with Mexico, from the marigolds wrapped around her mic stand to the tequila she poured on the stage to share with Mother Earth.
We danced along to explosive cumbia beats on the concert-opening “Las Marmotas" and the followup horn-blasting, percussion-thumping "La Campanera," before she slowed things down with the tearful "La Martiniana."
It was hard to sit still when she paid homage to the chile in "Son del Chile Frito." And she gave us reason to ooh and ahh as she scaled the range of her vocal prowess, from sobering mezzo-soprano to muscular alto to soft soprano in the traditional Mexican folk song "La Martiniana."
Downs pulled from several of her career albums, mixing in covers of traditional Mexican folk songs. She allowed herself to get political on "Clandestino," a song about the immigration issue that she has sung for years; the version she sang Wednesday night was updated to include references to the Trump administration's family separation policies.
As an encore, Downs shared the Centennial Hall stage with Maricachi Aguilitas de Davis from Davis Bilingual Elementary Magnet School, a group of more than two dozen kids from fourth through sixth grades, before performing her super fun homage to mole, the raucous "La Cumbia del Mole."