To bossa and back

Caetano Veloso is one of Brazil's most beloved musical superstars. He's also, as his live show proves, a tireless innovator and a consummate showman.

Published June 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

For over three decades, Brazilians have adored Caetano Veloso, now 57, as a poet, intellectual, moral force, singer to die for and musical stylist who never repeats himself. At the start of his June 27 show at the Beacon Theater in New York, the lanky, gracefully graying superstar ambled onto the stage in a dark brown suit and swung a nylon-string guitar over his knee. For the past few years, Veloso has been performing romantic Spanish songs, a genre called fina estampa, with mostly string backing. But at the Beacon, it was clear he had something else in mind. At the beginning of the show, four drummers from Bahia, a province in northeast Brazil, preceded Veloso on stage, playing a march rhythm on snare drums slung around their necks. They were just the start of Veloso's two-hour performance, featuring 11 musicians who reveled in the creation of tension and juxtaposition, in exploring diverse genres, sometimes in the span of one song.

Veloso is a bossa nova man who went psychedelic in the '60s and then came back. There were strings and horns on one side of the stage, drums on the other. Bossas morphed into batucada (Brazilian percussion) in the manner of Veloso's sensational new album, "Livro." Sometimes a lilting bossa, like "Os Passistas," would gradually bloom into rich percussion. Other times the drums would trample in, rearranging the rhythm from the root, making the gentle, romantic plucking and bowing from stage-left have to work to reassert itself. Veloso's velvety voice mediated all the tensions with breathtaking ease. For him, there was no contradiction at all.

Veloso oldies and even a Jobim classic got similar treatment during the night of intriguing transformations. In summary, his work is an ongoing love song to the people and cultures of Brazil. Everyone connected with that vast, culturally and ethnically diverse land seems to get it. Songs from "Livro" made up less than half of the show, and often the mostly Brazilian crowd sang and danced along, especially on "Tieta do Agreste," Veloso's romping, lyrical theme for a popular TV series and film. On a percussion-fired song written by Veloso's eldest son, Caetano and each of the drummers took a turn dancing in the circle, samba de roda style.

Veloso's English stage patter was as idiosyncratic as his music, full of references to poetry and history, and leading in multiple directions at once. While not always easy to follow, Veloso was tremendously charismatic on stage. He would finish a verse, lay down his guitar and stroll to the edge of the stage to shake hands, then casually arrive back at his guitar just in time to play and sing the next verse. Although the Beacon, with a sold-out room of 1,800, is a large room, Veloso, in his best moments, made it seem like a small cafe.

By Banning Eyre

Banning Eyre is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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