Gilberto Gil at the Schermerhorn, 11/5/12
"For me, that was like seeing Paul McCartney," said a friend in the lobby of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center last night after Gilberto Gil's dazzling set. "Wha? Who?" you say, and the Schermerhorn's empty upper tiers testified to what a tough sell the show must have been — even for a musical figure who arrives bearing a catalog the heft of Macca's, charisma to rival Prince's, a multi-generational populist following worthy of The Boss, and political standing unmatched by any pop star in this country.
But those who turned out were as rabid as any Beatlemaniac past or present. It's not often in Music City you see a conga line human-centipeding through the Schermerhorn's narrow rows under a canopy of outstretched arms; it's even rarer that you hear several hundred Nashvillians singing call-and-response in Portuguese. And so a case can be made that a turnout that might've looked dire for, say, Al Jarreau was actually impressive for an artist whose name recognition among the city at large probably ranks somewhere between a replacement Titan and a fourth-party presidential contender.
Precisely for that reason, the city owes a debt of thanks and season subscriptions to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the Schermerhorn for the first Nashville appearance by Gil — one of the founding fathers of modern-day Brazilian pop music, yet whose influence is even farther-reaching than that may sound. Gil is one of those humbling figures whose popularity abroad (and in top-tier towns such as Los Angeles and New York) periodically reminds Nashville there is music beyond Music City. His torrid just-short-of-two-hour set was the best kind of music-history lesson: one you can dance to.
Drawing from a five-decade career, Gil may have one-upped McCartney in one regard: It's hard to imagine Beatle Paul starting a concert with a relatively new song — in Gil's case, the title track from his 2010 release Fé na Festa — and getting rewarded with handclaps in time and an immediate singalong. The 70-year-old Gil, lithe and trim in a white T-shirt, close-cropped gray hair and jeans, made his entrance with a red guitar slung across his hips, coaxing from it a scratchy, sexy, teasing rhythmic riff. He immediately established a rapport with his six-piece band, including percussionist Gustavo di Dalva and drummer Jorge Gomes, each surrounded on a separate riser by an array of percussion instruments.
Right up front, Gil cautioned his audience that they were in for something "different from folk pop and bossa nova samba," the sound most Americans associate with Brazil. That something included baião and forró, the dance music of Brazil's Northeast, raffish and hot where bossa nova is languid and cool. A stew of European and Latin American influences — one song sounded uncannily like a Balkan reggae band in an Argentine tango bar — it's music meant to loosen hips and lower inhibitions. Fans visibly squirmed in their seats for seven songs until maestro Gil summoned them to their feet with a beckoning wave, at which point the aisles filled with surging, undulating bodies.
At times the ensemble made such a dense, roiling, polyrhythmic racket that we wondered whether Gil were augmenting his group with pre-recorded tracks. But as best we could tell, the sound onstage all came from Gil's dexterous septet, with bassist Arthur Maia supplying loping runs and lead guitarist Sergio Chiavazzoli switching off to a percussively plunked banjo that evoked the jazzy excursions of Nashville's own Béla Fleck. The set seemed structured to guide the audience through the many influences on and by Brazilian music, which Gil termed "a whole family of different members." The centerpiece was a two-song Bob Marley tribute, highlighted by a gorgeous "Three Little Birds" that came off like a cross between a Cajun reel and a lilting lullaby.
Between songs, Gil — not coincidentally Brazil's former minister of culture — served as both ambassador and professor, explaining how, for example, the Portuguese royal family's flight from Napoleon was directly responsible for the introduction of European forms such as the mazurka and the schottische into Brazil's indigenous dance and folk musics. (Well, of course! Like, duh.) He may not have the official title anymore, but he hasn't forsaken the role of cultural evangelist: Among other things, he used his podium to school Nashvillians in the significance of the late king of baião, the great accordionist Luiz Gonzaga. (His own accordionist, Toninho Ferragutti, engaged violinist Nicholas Krassik throughout the night in spellbinding camaraderie, as if they were playing in their own zydeco band.)
Maybe that sounds dry, but Gil cut such a lusty, joyous figure that he made his between-song entreaties sound more like sharing than teaching. For one thing, the man can move. Showing off dance steps that ranged from coquettish to Cosby-esque, alternately strutting and shuffling in flirtatious give-and-take with the dancers down front, Gil beamed as he criss-crossed the stage. By night's end, wrapping himself in an audience member's Brazilian flag, he capped what looked like a variation on James Brown's good foot by pogoing on the apron. Pogoing! That's to say nothing of his hypnotic rhythm-guitar work, his fingers a spider-walking blur up and down the fretboard. And he reveled in the hold anthems such as "Andar com Fe" and "Expresso 2222" had over an audience in the cradle of country music, conducting the kind of mass singalongs you'd expect from Springsteen at Bridgestone.
Gil finished with a three-song encore, including an acoustic English-language rendition of one of his loveliest ballads, "Refavenza." He left the stage to a sea of waving arms and pumping fists, even one brave soul who held aloft a lighter (aka the analog iPhone). In the lobby, breathless fans were floating hopes of someday seeing Gil's contemporaries Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, Jorge Ben or Joao Gilberto; one can only keep fingers crossed that this triumph received a warm enough reception to encourage the Schermerhorn and the NSO to take a chance on other figures of Gilberto Gil's stature.
But for that to happen, larger Nashville audiences will have to take a chance on opportunities like this. If they knew the reward for such a modest risk — if they'd seen the show we saw last night — we wouldn't be having this discussion.