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Os Mutantes

Band: Os Mutantes

Venue: The Barbican, London

Date: May 22, 2006

Review by Bill Bartell

A rainy, inauspicious, seemingly very English Monday for a guy from the sweltering Southern California deserts; hardly the harbinger of the spiritual and musical supernova of illuminating glory that would grace the stage of the Barbican’s Exhibition Hall that evening.

Reunion gig: the very words intertwine the icy terror of potential disappointment with hopeful expectation; in the hearts of people who admire and embrace musical groups that have ceased to exist in any form but the vinyl — or dare I say, the digital realms — both are disturbingly probable outcomes to a complex equation.

Being one of these hopefuls, since I was a seven year old in 1968, I spent the afternoon with mind-boggling, almost surreal anticipation in my heart and stomach. I have seen my share of these sort of gigs: some astounding (the all original Zombies doing Odyssey and Oracle front to back, The Stooges, Arthur Lee’s Love on a good night), some disastrous (The Raspberries, The Deviants, Arthur Lee’s Love, more specifically Arthur, on a particularly drug addled bad night), some absurdly improbable, but also outstandingly amazing (The Monks, and The Shaggs — for God’s sake! — within two weeks of each other). It is into the highly improbable that we delve here, from a continent and time period almost incomprehensible to someone not versed in 1960s South American dictatorships, Brazilian musical innovation at its most revolutionary, and the seemingly sinister, yet intriguing Voodooesque, religion of Macumba.
Image Sérgio in his finery. Photo: Susanna Motta
Sérgio in his finery. Photo: Susanna Motta

Os Mutantes. Legendary flagship band of Brazil’s 1960s Tropicália movement, whose final incarnation, featuring only founding member and stellar guitarist Sérgio Dias (né Baptista), called it quits in 1973. If you are uninitiated as to the history and music of this band, there really is no room here to enlighten you. Revolutionary in every definition of the word is a blanket easy assessment; brilliant is merely a handy understatement. (Advice: go get the first six CDs, recently issued in the UK for the first time, and be astounded.) Onward…

Capping the Barbican’s month long series of performances celebrating past stars and recent adherents to the passions of Tropicália, the Brazilian take on sixties psychedelia and political activism, Os Mutantes (The Mutants, for you non Portuguese speakers) return, hitting London for the first time in their career.

With founding brothers Sérgio and Arnaldo Baptista (lead guitar and keyboards respectively), along with original drummer Ronaldo "Dinho" Leme, fronting the seven highly talented and absolutely necessary additional stage musicians, the air is heavy with anticipation. Tragedy, animosity and diverse solo projects have kept this unit from functioning for thirty-three years. Tonight the interstellar overdrive is in full throttle mode. A sold out performance, with fans (including myself) flying in from all over the world, in spite of the band performing sans their mid-career addition, bassist Arnolpho "Liminha" Filho, and somewhat more importantly, the band’s third vocal cornerstone and founding member, Rita Lee.

Rita, who arguably became the biggest pop star in Brazilian history after going solo in 1972, apparently declined the invitation to join the reunion; her integral vocal stylings are to be emulated on this night by guest vocalist, the sultry and very reverent Zélia Duncan, a current star in her own right in Brazil’s pop music world. Arnolpho, long a well-respected producer, apparently had other commitments.

Having been privileged enough to attend the private rehearsal the evening before, I knew what the live show would comprise. The band had picked not only the best material from their first five albums (eschewing any of the post Rita and post Arnaldo material that comes dangerously close to sounding like Yes or E.L.P.), but also the most improbable and musically complex selections. If they felt they needed to prove something musically to the few guests who were invited to watch them rehearse most of the set list, they performed these intricate song suites so effortlessly it seemed almost surreal.

As a concession to the logically expected, mostly English speaking audience at a London show, the set list was well stocked with the English language versions of their early Portuguese material, which graces the originally shelved Tecnicolor album. Not having performed in Brazil (or anywhere else, for that matter) for so long prior to their UK debut, the band acknowledged they would do an all Portuguese set when they finally decide to perform in their native country.
Image Mutantes 2006 (L-R) Arnaldo, Zélia, Sérgio. Photo: Susanna Motta
Mutantes 2006 (L-R) Arnaldo, Zélia, Sérgio. Photo: Susanna Motta

The group had abandoned the Tecnicolor album after completion in 1970, due to dissatisfaction with the production. Four of the English language songs did surface on the group’s startling fourth album, 1970’s Jardim Electrico (Electric Garden).

Tecnicolor in its entirety was finally issued in 1999 in Brazil (on Universal/Mercury Brazil), to much applause, featuring calligraphy and artwork by a huge American fan, a certain Sean Ono Lennon.

(An aside: In 2000 Sean coaxed the reclusive Arnaldo out of stage retirement in 2000, when his band Cibo Matto played a festival gig in São Palo. Covering Os Mutantes’ classic Panis Et Circensis in front of a stunned Brazilian audience, Arnaldo’s shy but charming and joyous performance literally brought tears to the eyes of the reverent crowd.)

The evening of the show at the beautiful Barbican Centre was rife with rumour, excitement, international fandom and star turns: David Bowie had inquired about the guest list (he didn’t show); Beck (whose album Mutations was itself a homage to Mutantes and Tropicália) was rumoured to have flown in from Los Angeles (he didn’t); Pretender Chrissie Hynde gave dignified but brief interviews to the flurry of Brazilian and British television crews covering the event, expounding on her love of the band, without hinting at when she had actually first heard of them; Devendra Banhart, a noted Tropicália enthusiast, billed as a "special guest" that evening, held court in the lobby, resplendent in crushed velvet.
Arnaldo triumphant. Photo: Susanna Motta

Travel weary fans could be overheard speaking exuberantly in their assorted native tongues of American English, Portuguese, Brazilian dialect Portuguese, German, French, Italian, Czech and Japanese. Expectations and excitement were building in the lobby as the sounds of support act Nação Zumbi seeped through the closed doors and onto video screens from the auditorium.

Twenty minutes past the expected show time, the audience was ushered into the seated auditorium by the dimming of lights, and the maximum capacity crowd was charged with its own electric expectation. To my left was seated a Roman and Parisian who had made the sojourn to see the legends; behind me, young teenagers from Tokyo and São Palo, who couldn’t have been born when the band broke up in 1978. Portuguese aside, this cross-cultural international pilgrimage to London succinctly illustrates the depth and clarity with which true genius speaks, irrespective of the language it uses.

Forty minutes past the announced show time, the restless crowd became palpably more anxious, visibly agitated. When the compere appeared on the curtainless stage, the crowd welled with enthusiastic applause, only to be silenced with "We’ve waited thirty-three years for this, if you don’t mind waiting another twenty minutes, there are some problems with some of the vintage equipment."

Horror; muted, muttered concern from the crowd; fear that the show may not go on at all. Then a respite as the announcer continued: "So Sérgio is going to come out here for a moment and take a look at it, then the band will be on in a few minutes."

Cheering from the audience, upgraded to a standing ovation when a nattily costumed Sérgio, looking somewhat embarrassed, humbly graced the stage clutching the guitar: the instrument responsible for the group’s otherworldly guitar sounds. Hand-constructed in the early sixties by his older brother, electronics genius Claudio Baptista, the famous instrument has fans of its own among musicians. Moments later, a string of signature Mutantes fuzzed notes blazed through the air, eliciting another round of relieved applause, and a humble wave from a smiling Sérgio; exit, stage right. Time was nigh.

As the introduction to Dom Quixote welled through the sound system (by fellow Tropicálist pioneer and Os Mutantes’ original orchestral arranger, Rogério Duprat), furtive glances and comments were exchanged between audience members. Incredulous that that band would attempt Dom Quixote, possibly their most musically and vocally intricate number, the crowd stood and cheered as Os Mutantes, dressed in elegant capes and jodhpurs, boots and black taffeta gowns, took the stage for the first time in thirty-three years. And then proceeded to sonically pummel any misconception that this particular reunion might have been ill conceived.

Indeed, breaking directly into Dom Quixote ("Dom" being Portuguese for the more familiar Spanish honorific "Don"), showcased the band’s intricate, baroque-syncopated a capella harmonies, melding them seamlessly with orchestral drumming and crazed feedback guitar, concocting an astounding live rendition of a piece of recorded art. On the record (1968’s Mutantes), with all the safety nets and trappings of a recording studio, the track is a remarkable work in itself; how they accomplished this feat live, without the assistance of samples, synchronized pre-recorded tracks or computers, attests to their bravery, artistry and incredible talents. And it was only the first song of the evening.

With more aggressive trumpet peals, the band then launched directly into another track from their second album, its closing number, the ethereal Caminhante Noturno (Night Walker) — another complex piece showcasing four part vocal harmonies and again, drummer Dinho’s alternating rock and roll beats and timpani malloted symphonic drums. Percussionist Simoné Soul excelled at alternating between screaming through coiled plastic tubing, Brazilian percussive devices, and just plain odd noisemakers, remarkably recreating every complex nuance of the studio recording. Simoné’s job would remain the most manic of the stage band throughout the evening, dutifully keeping up with the requisite sound effects while alternating between intricate Latin percussion and unrecognisable instruments, seemingly within split seconds of each other. Sérgio’s theatrical guitar-mounted switch flicking led the band through the various time signature changes (4/4 to 3/4/ to 6/8 to bossa-nova-in-outer-space/4) and crescendos, with each knob turning arm movement acting as a conductor’s baton. Onward and upward.

Reverting to their origins, the band next presented Ave Ghengis Kahn (Hail Ghengis Kahn) from their first, eponymous album Os Mutantes (not be confused with the aforementioned, similarly titled Mutantes). A subtle blend of samba, bossa nova and feedback, it features keyboardist Arnaldo out John Lord-ing the Deep Purple keyboardist at his own game. It eventually devolves (like so many Mutantes songs…) into a terrifying slow death march, with gang chanting and draconian spoken vocals from Sérgio, evoking a feeling of having left a church of some sort for the trek to war across a blood stained plain. Three words, those of the title, are chanted like a mantra; that’s all it needs to terrify and mesmerize, which it does to great effect.

Next we heard English, for the first time this evening, as the keyboards swirled beautifully into Tecnicolor (from both the once shunned album of the same name and their fourth album, Jardim Electrico). Sérgio’s vocals alternated with Zélia’s, escalating to trademark syncopated harmonies, beautifully utilizing the other musicians and backing vocalists to perform the first song of the evening that doesn’t have a dark, threatening edge to it. Still weighty, but more uplifting than the previous selections, it was a magnificent ending for the set’s introductory four song medley. With the first words spoken to the audience, a pleased and friendly sounding Sérgio intoned, "Thank you very much, it’s great to be here; we’re Os Mutantes." The song was five minutes long, and it seemed to have flown by.

English again followed, with another track from the fourth album, the beautiful ballad Virginia. Softer, yet still uncomfortably compelling, it is almost a country song, with Sergio playing almost flamenco style acoustic guitar. It is "light" in the vein of The Velvets’ Who Loves The Sun or Love’s Red Telephone, i.e. heavy without being obtuse.

Touching for the first time on the band’s fifth album, the perplexingly entitled Mutantes and His Comets in the Country (or "on the Planet" in some translations) of Baurets, and Arnaldo’s first lead vocal, next came Cantar De Mambo (or in English, simply Mambo Singer). With what could possibly have been a sarcastic "explanation" of the premise of the song, the quest by Brazil’s Sergio Mendes (of Brazil ’66 fame) for an international platform for his music, the group launched into, expectedly, a rocked up mambo. (Mambo itself being a Cuban music, it is also a Haitian Voodoo and Spanish "contradanza" derivative style, fitting nicely into the Brazilian version of Voodoo, the African influenced "Macumba" religion.) Arnaldo’s enthusiastic presentation, and again Simoné’s pulsating percussion, had every audience member on their feet, rollicking and looking for floor space to mambo along with what may well have been an indictment of that other Sergio’s commercial success. Strange images of Santana’s interpretation of The Zombies’ She’s Not There came to mind during Sérgio’s lengthy, hero worthy guitar solo, and not for the last time in the evening.

Continuing with his gut string classical guitar, the third language of the evening, Spanish (as well as a few words in mock Italian, and some imaginary nonsense words that "sound like Portu-glish," according to Sérgio) makes it’s sole appearance in the flamengo (the Portugeuse word for the more familair Spanish "flamenco") tinged El Justiciero, from album number four. With its original dramatic spoken English introduction embellished to sarcastically include "Jorgé Bush and also Tony Blair, el gran justiciero," Sérgio excelled at true flamengo playing, while singing the somewhat surreal adventures of a gun toting hero of the peasants, now globally repositioned to "the United Kingdom." Time will tell if this mythical lover of tequila, chocolate, "Juanita Banana" and gun fueled justice will end up protecting whichever city the band is performing in on their first ever U.S. tour beginning July 21, in New York City.

The following number turned out to be Zélia’s first solo lead vocal, the Tecnicolor English translation of the first album’s track, Baby. It is sultry, sexy with a Nico-esque cool, blended with a fiery lilt. A distinctly different vocal timbre than Rita Lee, the audience was still enthralled, partly because for those of Brazilian origin, Zélia is a major star with her own solo career. Reverently performed in the less garage rock Tecnicolor arrangement, its deceptively simple beauty accompanies bizarre lyrics about reading handwritten slogans on shirts and trying new flavours of ice cream. As with many Mutantes songs, the cliché rock and roll use of the term "Baby" has almost nothing to do with the song’s subject matter.

The band then gently started upon I’m Sorry Baby, from Tecnicolor and their alarming third album A Divina Comédia Ou Ando Meio Desligado (Divine Comedy Or I Walk Disconnected). A soaring ballad, the English rewrite of the lyrics seems to be much more overtly about the boy in the relationship (telling his girlfriend he’s about to commit suicide) than the Portuguese version. Ending with a rave up worthy of a Southern Baptist church service, the "glory glory of my life" chorus is hypnotic, and probably the most joyous celebration of self inflicted demise on record, or in this case, in concert.

The second lead performance by Zélia, which followed, was an entirely different from her previous delicate rendition of Baby. Top Top, the most popular track and single from Jardim Electrico, is presented as if Big Brother and the Holding Company were fronted not only by Janis Joplin, but also a tougher Grace Slick and the in-attendance Chrissie Hynde at the same time… if they were all at their peaks, and if, of course, they were all from Brazil. She levelled the audience with her gutsy stage presence and powerful vocals, and Rita Lee’s phantom conspicuous in absentia is all but exorcised.

Perhaps the most unsettling song of the night is the disturbing and highly unexpected performance of Arnaldo’s Dia 36 (Day 36), from the second album. Perhaps one of their strangest in-studio productions (and that is saying quite a lot…), Arnaldo sings through a "Leslie," a rotating speaker generally used to generate the swirling chorus effect of a Hammond organ; John Lennon used it to lesser effect on Tomorrow Never Knows. With bowed sliding bass guitar notes, droning wah wah from Sérgio, and nightmare inducing percussive dynamics from Dinho and Simoné, the song is a highlight of the evening. A disturbing, provocative highlight at that, with lyrics about scarves, bedspreads and, perhaps, hope. Really.

Following Arnaldo’s standing ovation is Fuga No II (Escape Number II), again from the second album. Hauntingly handled by Zélia, the swirling harp strings and intricate vocal arrays dazzle, disturb and overwhelm the senses, with lyrics — in Portuguese for this one — about "luck, death and hope," in that order. Dinho again excels as the arrangement leads us to a crescendo of vocal harmonies worthy of The Mamas and The Papas and The Byrds.

The fourth language of the evening, French, represents a return to the first album, Le Premier Bonheur Du Jour (The First Joy of the Day). An elegant revamping of the 1963 original by Françoise Hardy, its gentle tone sets the stage for a more frenzied follow up. Zélia again takes the lead, and satisfies on a different, more ethereal level than that of her previous performances. Chillingly, for those few North Americans of proper age in attendance, this song evokes unpleasant memories of the 1960s USA children’s television show, the genuinely creepy Ville Alegre, which used portions of the French original as its incidental music.

The deceptively playful Dois Mil E Um (2001) starts as a jaunty folk song about an astronaut whose "blood is gasoline" (!), but devolves into frenzied dissonant sound effect horrors before the musicians reconnect on some astral plane with campy fifties style "bop-shu-bop-bop-bop-shu-bop-oh-yeah" vocals — or perhaps more accurately, their Portuguese equivalent — to rousing effect.

Round two of the Hail theme is invoked next, with the complex and incredibly boldly titled Ave, Lucifer, which needs no translation but possibly an aside as to how radical this song’s title was for a group of angelic young musicians living in a fiercely Catholic country run by a military dictator in 1970. Although their subtle political comments in other songs were cause for censorship and sometimes aggression from the police state, singing about such a subject in this manner was equally radical, if not more so, in 1968 Brazil.

Sérgio is again handed the spotlight for a song penned by brother Arnaldo and Rita Lee, with the beautiful piano driven Balada Do Louco (Crazy One’s Ballad) from the fifth album. He has the entire audience singing along from the first note, through the Hey Jude style chanting outro. Perhaps the most emotionally moving moment of the evening, the band already sound like a full choir with their own vocals, but the audience makes it seem like it’s The World Cup, and Brazil is in the finals.

One of the group’s most incendiary tunes Ando Meio Desligado (I Walk Disconnected) follows — again courtesy of the Tecnicolor version, rewritten by the band into poetic English as I Feel A Little Spaced Out. With a distinctly Latin feel, it again brings to mind Santana’s version of The Zombies, and then goes into a whole different world, melding Cream and Deep Purple’s most furious moments with a Clapton-esque nod to the guitar solo of While My Guitar Gently Weeps — humorously including one line of Harrison’s original in the lengthy outro. Sérgio flawlessly elevates himself to his well-earned guitar hero status, with panache not often seen in today’s musicians. The band stokes the fire of the song like driven maniacs, while never digressing into excess or self-indulgence.

As the song’s vocal coda reverberates throughout the room, the band goes one step further into what can only be termed as kicking ass, launching into the closing number, the once banned Cabaluda Patriota (Long Haired Patriot), from the fifth album. Without question their hardest rocking song, the released version was forcibly retitled Time To Grow Your Hair — although instead of actually changing the offending lyric, the band, on record, simply put noise over the words.

There was a not so subtle statement being made in the originally banned title being boldly printed in twenty point type on the set lists: Os Mutantes had outlived their oppressors — both political and musical — and are all the stronger for it. The crazed keyboards and guitars ply for dominance, without overshadowing the all important (but seemingly innocent in this era) lyrics, on how hard it was to simply have long hair in a society that endeavoured to control almost every aspect of your life. A fitting vindication if there ever was one.

Launching directly into a first album favourite, the jaunty A Minha Minina (My Girl), Sérgio, for the first and only time of the evening, combined the Tecnicolor English translation of She’s My Shoo Shoo with the original Portuguese, as written by fellow Tropicálist, Jorge Ben. With a fuzz guitar line worthy of Psychotic Reaction, the crowd was dancing in the aisles, clapping along in complex syncopated rhythms, and basically having the time of their lives, as were, apparently, Os Mutantes.

Glowing with the appreciation of the audience and without the pretence of actually leaving the stage, Os Mutantes returned to their respective posts for an encore of another popular number from their first album, Bat Macumba. The band, in 1968, was given this controversial Gilberto Gil/Caetano Veloso composition (the lyrics of which consist of barely three words that get shorter as the song progresses); controversial in that it basically emulates the frenzied trance like dancing and chanting of practitioners of Brazil’s Macumba religion. It is hypnotic Top Forty Voodoo, with brother Claudio’s built in "Green Devil" fuzz creation gloriously turning Sérgio’s guitar solos into something akin to an acid drenched swarm of killer bees. Of all the original and retro 1960s garage bands in the world, none have come close to this primitive, dentist-drill-into-your-soul sound. Piercing, ear shattering and laced with the South American equivalent of an American Southern Baptist revival (fittingly, as the fervour of those church services and Macumba’s intensity both stem from African rhythms), it is exhausting and invigorating at the same time. The band ends on an a capela refrain, after playfully interspersing a bit of the theme from the sixties television show Bat Man.
Image: Arnaldo

Crazed crowd recognition then greets the opening trumpet obligatos of Panis Et Circensis, Os Mutantes’ first recorded introduction to the record buying public as a stand alone group. Again specifically written for the group by their patrons and progenitors of Tropicália, Veloso and Gil, Bread And Circuses (as translated from the original Latin) is a landmark song of the Tropicália movement, and could well be regarded as the band’s signature song; placing it as the final encore illustrates that they know their own place in history. With the English language lyrics again clearly audible, from the Tecnicolor rewrite, this is an odd tale of lions roaming freely in the back yard, unnoticed by "people having dinner inside," and public execution of a lover. The words are almost superficial compared to the actual sounds of the song, which — both on record and here, live on stage — encompass intricate and unusual instrumentation and vocal arrangements, before it actually falls apart completely… only to be gently beckoned back to life by the melodic recorder playing of multi instrumentalist Vitor Trida, faithfully emulating the stylings of the band’s original multi instrumentalist, Rita Lee.

The mantra like ending of Panis Et Circensis in the original version of the song translates into the tongue twisting "those people in the dining room"; for Tecnicolor, the band’s English lyric is the charmingly awkward but more melodically phrased "the music lighted with heat of the sun." The vintage psychedelic confusing of tenses and transitive verb placement at this point had seemingly no effect on the absolute euphoria of the highly vocal audience, who followed the band’s increasingly manic tempo like whirling dervishes, until there was simply nowhere left to go. For anyone.

And then the band was gone. Their final exit from the stage was accompanied by a full seven minutes of applause and chants of "MU-TAN-CHÉS" (the Anglophilic denotation of the Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation) from the gleeful audience, before the house lights came on. Undeterred, the entire crowd remained in their seats, futilely chanting and pounding on their seats for an additional five minutes; but there would be no more that night: the band that had given so much of their daring youth to Os Mutantes and to the sixties and seventies cultural upheaval, had given these fortunate witnesses their all. Finally, the resigned crowd relented, knowing, as they talked amongst themselves whilst exiting the venue, that they had just experienced something magical, something personal, and most certainly, and without question, the absolute best of Tropicália.

os mutantes  , bill bartell  , brazil  , psychedelia  , the monks  , the shaggs  ,
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