Os Mutantes, Brazil's legendary tropicália band, played Austin last night. If you don't know who the Mutantes are, you had better learn. If you do know the band but hadn't heard they were back together and on tour, after a thirty-five-year silence, well, too bad. Austin was their last U.S. appearance. And what a show!
The seven piece band played Austin's Antone's bar — a remarkably compact venue for an act that inspired American stadium-fillers like Beck, the Flaming Lips, and the Talking Heads. Their set-list included a balanced mixture of classics from their 1960s and 70s heyday and cuts from their 2009 reunion album, Haih…ou Amortecedor…. "Reunion" is a word I employ here with hesitation: Only two of the band's founding members, frontman Sérgio Dias Baptista and his brother, Arnaldo Baptista, remain, and the rest of the band consists of players who're probably younger than the Mutante's first albums. Strangely, this amalgamation works.
Dressed in what looked to me like a priest's gown — but what my friend John insists was actually a judge's robe — Sérgio led the band onstage. He permitted the crowd to shout wildly at him for a few moments, then, in perfect English, he coyly quieted us down. "We're going to start now."
Opening the set was "Technicolor," and that word seems to me an apt descriptor of what followed, and perhaps of the band's general approach to music. Two songs into the show, rowdy audience members were already demanding a famous earlier songs, "A Minha Menina", and that's exactly what the Mutantes played next. I have no idea if that was a coincidence. In the middle of the tune, while the audience danced salsa, Sérgio introduced the players, allowing each the customary showcased instrumental solo. He then ceded the microphone to female vocalist Bia Mendes for another trademark song, the Caetano Veloso-penned "Baby".
At about this point in the show, it hit me that Os Mutantes is the most cohesive musical ensemble I've seen. Sure, Sérgio is the dominant songwriter and guitarist, but any of the seven musicians could easily have been a frontman/woman. And I'm not talking just about stage charisma, which each of the band members had in spades. Even the keyboardists sang solo vocals, in the concert performance if not on the studio album (I can't tell); and in his between-song dialogue, Sérgio indicated that all seven were involved in the invention of the newer music that appears on the 2009 album. They are a telling counterpoint to other bands like Green Day, a trio that hires a quintet of nameless players to accompany it on tour.
Of particular note, in this present Mutantes flock are the two performers who stand with Sérgio at the front of the stage. Musical factotum Vitor Trida plays guitar, flue, clarinet, and maybe a couple other instruments I didn't catch. He co-wrote the bizarre "Neuroscência do Amor", which Sérgio confessed he himself did not understand. Oh, and he wears a floor-length embroidered kimono-vest, and no shirt underneath.
Bia Mendes, who I mentioned before, has the unenviable task of comparison to the Mutante's pioneering lady-singer, Rita Lee, but she manages that burden effortlessly. Mendes is sexy and magnetic. She is the kind of performer you watch because whatever she's doing is probably more interesting than anything else happening on stage, even when she is covetously mouthing a comrade's lines or dancing so wildly she bumps the microphone and winks unabashedly at the audience when it chirps. I don't know anything about her career before Os Mutantes, but someone needs to cast her in a movie, and soon.
In the encore, while Sérgio blasted noises from his guitar that I didn't know were possible and that sounded like a revving automobile, Mendes mimicked a steering wheel and drove herself across the stage, then into Sérgio — and then both jerked down into kneeling positions in a playful imitation of a car wreck. My description here doesn't do justice to what was one of the most intimate and beautiful interactions I've witnessed on stage between guitarist and singer. That the entire band, and these two in particular, is relishing every moment of the performance is not debatable.
The famous "Baby" lyric is that you need to learn to speak Portuguese, and maybe that's true for the lover who narrates that song. But you and I and anyone who loves music need not speak Portuguese to have a hell of a great time with Os Mutantes. Good rock and roll speaks all languages.