Live Braziiian Music: Gilberto Gil at Royce Hall

Don Heckman

Gilberto Gil’s performance at Royce Hall Saturday night had the warm and fuzzy feeling of a career retrospective. It would be, he said at the beginning, a “simple concert,” urging his listeners to “enjoy the music.” And, forty years after he became one of the founding forces in Brazil’s stylistically eclectic Tropicalismo genre, with more than fifty albums released, there was a potentially large collection of music to “enjoy.”

The program was titled “The String Concert,” not because – as one might have thought – he was accompanied by a string orchestra, but because he was performing with the sole companionship of his son, guitarist Bem Gil and cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, Two guitars and a cello – 16 strings. Add to that Gil’s voice, with its startling contrasts between falsetto whoops and shouts, low basso chest tones, and the conversational expressiveness of his mid-range singing. All of which was more than enough for the program Gil had in mind – a slowly unfolding survey of selections from the rich catalog of songs he has produced over the past four plus decades.

The “simple concert” label was a more apt description for the presentation: Gil seated in the center, Bem Gil to his left, Morelenbaum to his right, performing without a break for two hours. The continuing flow of songs was only interrupted by Gil’s occasional introductions, often humorous, and – once or twice – the departure of Bem or Morelenbaum to permit solo or duet interpretations.

Aside from the occasions in which Gil persuaded the audience to join in singing a few phrases, the music was focused solely on his guitar and vocals and, occasionally, his quirky whistling. It was a dramatic contrast with a Gil concert I reviewed at the Hollywood Bowl a decade or so ago. Backed by vigorous eight piece band at the time, he transformed the venue into a Bahian carnaval setting, the aisles filled with listeners exploring their inner samba selves, the visceral energy of the music booming across the Hollywood hills.

Gil’s Royce Hall program had a more placid quality – autumnal passages interspersed with the white light dynamism of his past glories. Typically, the songs’ topics ranged the gamut from the small intimacies of love to the larger concerns of the society and the environment. Bem Gil’s guitar playing shadowed his father’s lines, joining in unisons, filling in musical contrasts, completely supportive of each interpretation. Morelenbaum, on the other hand, was a virtual one man orchestra, producing lyrical countermelodies, crisp pizzicatos and strummed rhythms.

Interestingly, beyond the continuing line-up of Gil catalog items, two of the evening’s most intriguing items were composed, he said, within the past six months. The first, “Das Duas, Uma,” (“Of the Two, One”) was written for his daughter’s wedding. The second, “Quatro Coisas” (“Four Things”), was one “of many,” he said, composed for his wife Flora. Also memorable – his stark, emotionally intense rendering of “Não Tenho Medo da Morte” (“I’m Not Afraid of Death”) – performed with the sole accompaniment of his fingers drumming on his guitar and a single, tolling bass string.

So, yes, “simple concert” it was, in terms of the instrumentation and its presentation. But, at its best, “simple” can represent a fascinating, many-layered distillation. As it did in Gilberto Gil’s engaging Royce Hall performance.

in the International Review of Music, 21.03.2010
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