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.