Published Apr 13, 2015Following a warm introduction, Brazilian musical master Gilberto Gil walked out casually, sat centre stage in the spotlight, and calmly tuned his acoustic guitar by ear. He was joined by Domenico Lancellotti on drums and electronics, Erivaldo Oliveira on accordion and percussion, and Bem Gil, his son, who would play everything from glockenspiel and guitar to flute and a dinner plate. The 72-year-old Gilberto has nothing left to prove, having won many awards for his revolutionary music and politics as one of the founders of tropicália and the former Brazilian Minister of Culture, but he proved himself again anyway. He played for an hour and 40 minutes, with an intermission, and played well. Starting into "Aos Pés da Cruz," softly tapping the tempo with his foot, Gilberto's voice and guitar instantly lit up the sold-out Chan Shun Concert Hall at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
Gilberto didn't say anything to the crowd until after his third song, "Tim Tim por Tim Tim," at which point he laid out the history behind his recent record, Gilbertos Samba; namely, how he came to create a samba record based largely in celebration of the music of bossa nova innovator João Gilberto. When he spoke, there was a bit of gravel, but when he sang, you'd never guess that this man had recorded some 50 albums over a remarkable half-century career. Playing the aforementioned album in its entirety, with other classics mixed in along the way, he absorbed the mellow, substantial way João wrote, injecting with his own sensibilities, which draw on everything from highlife and reggae to disco and punk, though this set would keep things fairly minimal. He even wrote some lyrics for João's intricate instrumental "Um Abraço no Bonfa," a song Gilberto had given up trying to learn in his youth. He joked that maybe he had improved since then.
Gilberto's band rarely challenged him for the spotlight, but they were deeply supportive: Oliveira elicited cheers for his accordion solos on "Tim Tim por Tim Tim" and "Meio de Campo," a warm smile on his face as he bounced on his stool and coaxed the jovial melody for "Rio Eu Te Amo"; Lancellotti tickled his kit with brushes and added digital effects, sandpaper, double kick drums and anything else required as he exchanged gleeful glances with his bandmates across the stage; Bem laid down the funkiest of electric guitar on "Eu Vim da Bahia" and baritone ukulele that sounded like upright bass on "Meio de Campo"; all three of them tapped out quirky digital percussion on the dramatic "Maquina de Ritmo." Generally, the band simmered more than they cooked — a feeling mirrored in the rising and falling synth line on their rendition of "Desafinado" — but that's the samba way. It's all about slow burning summer jams, their breezy feel obscuring their complex design.
It must be somewhat difficult to get an older, affluent crowd invested in a performance, but they sure did. When "Rio Eu Te Amo" was over, Gil taught the crowd how the chorus went and led them in a sing-along, while Bem and Oliveira got them clapping an offbeat rhythm for "É Luxo Só" that they miraculously maintained throughout the rest of the song, with little coaxing. Most tellingly, when it came time to end their set on "Aquele Abraço" — a samba Gilberto released in 1969 that was subsequently performed at the 2012 London Summer Olympics closing ceremony — the crowd swayed in their seats, sang most of the words and belted out the chorus; one well-dressed man in the front row, with a red feather in his fedora, was compelled to stand up and move back by the fire exit to dance it out.
Granted, Gilberto's voice may not quite have hit the highs like it used to, but it was rich and soulful in the zone, his guitar work effortlessly vibrant. He still had a young soul, and as the set went on, he seemed to bring more of that out of everyone around him. He pushed their play and his voice to the limits on "Meio de Campo," squawking bird-like sounds as he hit the top of his range, giving each of his bandmates a chance to solo, and then leading the crowd in vocal echoes, the whole building brought together in song.
Yet for all the communal energy, a late highlight came when Gilberto picked up his guitar, alone. To hear him play his classic "Ladeira da Preguiça" solo on his shimmering acoustic guitar was to be whisked away to a sepia-toned, idyllic beach in 1971. It was truly a set for the ages.