Os Mutantes, Webster Hall, NYC- 7/21
NYC ROLL-TOP: Bat Macumba!
It was hard to know what to expect of Os Mutantes when they flew in from Brazil to play at Webster Hall on July 21st. The gig would be their first ever in the United States, and their second in over 30 years. Before that, at least on these shores, the Mutantes were always more a rumor than a band. The Portuguese language barrier combined with the fuzzy mists of time and drugs often shrouded the reports of the madness that surrounded the psychedelic dada-and-politics tropicalia movement (where the Mutantes served as unofficial house band). The Mutantes' meteoric teenage rise was grounded by romantic breakdowns, psychiatric break-ups, and a long-standing break between brothers. Not bad for a trio.
At Webster Hall, Sergio Dias Baptista (one of the brothers) was — for all intents and purposes — synonymous with Os Mutantes. The guitarist and singer, Baptista took to the stage in a full on psychedelic Victorian garb, tights and scarves and all. An irrepressible moptop, the effect was never less than adorable. Not coincidentally, he was involved neither with the break-up, nor the breakdown. His brother, Arnaldo, who played bass in the band's original incarnation, sat behind a bank of keyboards. Quickly shedding his Sgt. Pepper-style shirt, he was also the subject of periodic "Ar-nal-do, Ar-nal-do" chants. Since the early '80s, when he hurt himself severely while attempting to escape a mental institution, Arnaldo has rarely been heard from. Minus Rita Lee, their original vocalist (and the subject of the aforementioned romance with Arnaldo), was absent, replaced by Za Duncan— one of a septet of auxiliary musicians, plus Ronaldo "Dinho" Leme, their original touring drummer.
The music Os Mutantes performed was diminished in exactly the ways one would expect it to be, but also held together with enough durability to be absolutely awesome. Sure, the horns and strings came from synthesizers, and that kinda sucked, but where is else is one going to hear the "Octopus' Garden"
like loveliness of "Virginia" performed live? There are sure no Os Mutantes tribute acts. And, yeah, Arnaldo occasionally dropped notes and lyrics, but what's it to you? The band leaned heavily on Technicolor, their unissued‘til-the-‘90s English re-recording of their hits. Included in the set were the Crosby, Stills, and Nash-like harmonies of the title track, "Baby," and others. Despite being perfectly interesting, the English lyrics diminished some of the band’s luster, the high status mysteriousness of the Portuguese lyrics wiped away.
Sergio Dias — playing his custom guitar from the '60s — remained a perfectly capable axeman. Though there were plenty of musicians onstage, he handled nearly all the guitar parts himself, soloing in the same deliciously crunchy tone of the original recordings. Sadly, delicious '60s guitar crunch no longer sounds capable of overloading any type of speakers, just another special effect of the olden days. Likewise, though the English lyrics removed author Caetano Veloso's bilingual playfulness from "Baby," the song remained sultry and lovely. When the band sang in their native tongue, there was a surprisingly large contingent singing along.
The ecstasy came in the end, with a one-two encore that began with Gilberto Gil's "Bat Macumba." With lyrics that drop a syllable from the title chant with each pass, thus changing the meaning, the song references Afro-Brazilian religion, Batman, and smoking dope. With a hook-filled groove that is beyond catchy, it's a wonder no jamband has taken on the tune. And then there was the rollicking "Panis et Circenses" — sung in English as "Bread and Circuses" — the best number in the Mutantes' songbook. "The music lighted with the heat of the sun!" the Mutantes sang, rising and accelerating, a gleefully harmonized hook in any language, and they were gone.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com