In a bravura performance that lasted more than two hours and which showed him enjoying something of a renaissance, Caetano Veloso held the enthusiastic attention of a packed Barbican. With vigorous reinterpretations of his 40-year back catalogue plus a clutch of energetic songs from his new record, Cê, the 65-year-old musician proved that he could rock an audience with almost effortless skill. He seemed revived as an artist, re-energised with the talents that had put him on Brazil’s musical map in the first place.
More than anyone else in contemporary Brazilian music – and there is some stiff competition – Veloso has been the voice of his country. As one of the leading protagonists of the 1960s Tropicália art movement – celebrated in a brilliantly curated festival at the Barbican last year – he changed the face of popular music with his psychedelia-inspired sound. At the same time, his anti-establishment stance got him into trouble with Brazil’s military authorities, leading to a period of exile in London in the early 1970s.
Veloso’s musical journey, though, has led him to explore areas that some of his admirers have felt uncomfortable with. There have been tacky and tasteless, albeit proficiently performed, shows. His recent CD release of American ballads, A Foreign Sound, in which he covered everyone from Nirvana to Cole Porter,
seemed irrelevant. In addition, his Prince-like, over-indulgent arrangements and over-the-top stagings have tended to obscure his undoubted abilities as a songwriter and a subtle performer.
For this show and the record that it was promoting, though, Veloso dispensed with the usual excess of percussionists, extra guitarists and so on and enlisted instead a simple, standard rock four-piece: drums, bass, guitar and himself on vocals. The resulting sound was taut and sinewy, enlivened by electrifying guitar figures thrown out by Pedro Sá – 30 years Veloso’s junior, a musical collaborator with his son, Moreno – who also acted as musical director for the set.
This band and its arrangements of some of Veloso’s classic songs were the key to the evening’s success. Its reverbed, spare sound wouldn’t have been mismatched to a singer such as Jeff Buckley; supporting Veloso, it helped the singer reimagine familiar songs with startling results.
The simple “Desde que o Samba é Samba” began with a wah-wah pedal, kept the groove and segued into a slowed-down and then fast-tempo drum solo. The classic “Sampa”, originally recorded in 1978 with soft voice, tapped tambourine and acoustic guitar plucking, was here revitalised by choppy electric guitar and insistent bass. It made an emotional song more yearning, more resonant, and Veloso’s vocal chords responded accordingly.
Decked out in denim, very much playing the front man of the band and bouncing around the stage with Tiggerish energy, Veloso seemed in his element. Even with his flecked grey hair and glasses he didn’t look his age. Maybe his hip, much younger bandmates helped create the illusion of his being thirty-something – but his clear voice, scaling the range right through to falsetto, also belied his years. He was totally at ease with his audience, too, addressing them in perfect English. “I speak English out of politeness,” he said, and then what sounded like “although they don’t deserve our attention”, which won a small cheer and seemed a veiled reference to the shooting in 2005 of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes by police on the London Underground. Was that his politics re-emerging too?
This was an artist reinventing himself, rediscovering his voice – and it was an inspiration.