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Vicente Fernandez, in local ‘farewell’ concert, soars to emotional highs

In whis billed as his last tour Latmusic legend Vicente Fernandez sings Saturday Allstate Arena. | Phoby David Hernandez~CMN Events

In what is billed as his last tour, Latin music legend Vicente Fernandez sings Saturday at the Allstate Arena. | Photo by David Hernandez~CMN Events

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Updated: November 23, 2012 6:17AM

Almost every fall for five decades, Vicente Fernandez, “El Idol del Mexico,” has promised to “Volver, Volver” — return to Chicago and his legions of fans. That’s the song, released in the mid-’70s, that affirmed his status as “El Rey de la Cancion Ranchera,” the heir to a realm previously ruled by Mexican icons such as Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and Javier Solis, and perhaps most important of all, Jose Alfredo Jimenez.

After years of non-stop concerts, in Latin America and across the United States, Fernandez has embarked on his “La Gira de Adios,” his farewell tour, which stopped this weekend for two sold-out concerts at the Allstate Arena. Though he sings in “Volver, Volver” of returning to (our) arms once again, this time supposedly will be the last.

No one could possibly replace him. Latin stars such as Luis Miguel, Cristian Castro and Pedro Fernandez (no relation) have dabbled in or adopted the ranchera style, but no one commands the field as Chente has. Though two of his sons, Alejandro and Vicente Jr., followed their father into show business, neither seems poised to inherit his throne. Alejandro, a bona-fide star, leans more toward Latin pop. Vicente Jr., a former accountant, opened the Allstate concerts this weekend with his own set. He looks and sounds a bit like his father, but the similarities end there.

No matter. It was Chente’s show all the way Saturday. Accompanied by Mariachi Azteca, his longtime band, he performed in his usual larger-than-life style, accented by endearing sentimentality and yet always steeped in machismo. No one, in Latin music or otherwise, comes close to matching his intensity. With his arching, operatic-style phrasing, he soars to an emotional peak on every song.

That at 72 he remains at his peak, when other ranchera icons long had disappeared, makes his legacy all the more remarkable. Now he intends to retire from the stage, though he still plans to record. His fame is rooted in the Latin music world, but his cultural impact transcends boundaries. (For instance, he will have a street named after him in a ceremony Monday in Little Village.)

For his valedictory show here, Chente stuck to the basics. Performing in the round, on a simple stage, he was joined by no dancers, py­rotechnics or other special effects. Just the Man himself, singing continuously for 2½ hours and covering favorites such as “Aca Entre Nos,” “Llaves de Mi Alma,” “Que Te Vaya Bonito” and more than 40 others — all going down like a shot of the best tequila. In between songs, he mentioned his fond memories of Chicago, including the night he was onstage here and learned Alejandro, his youngest, had just been born (which he followed Saturday with a heartfelt “Hermoso Carino”).

Closing with his traditional orgullo segment, he roused the crowd with “Guadalajara” and “Mexico Lindo y Querido.” Then came the finale, “Volver, Volver,” and poignantly, the end of a era.

In a coincidence, Chente’s legend drives the plot of the last film with Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine. In “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez,” Borgnine plays a grumpy old man confined to a nursing home staffed by Latino workers. He finds validation when the staffers discover el hombre dio la mano a Chente — and his world turns around.

That in a nutshell symbolizes what “El Rey” has meant to his fans for so long. And why there never will be anyone like him ever again.

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