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When UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor David Garcia introduced Caetano Veloso at Memorial Hall, he mentioned two artists, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, who are often evoked to relate Veloso's impact on Brazilian music to the insulated English-speaking world. Then he turned the cliché inside out: "Why not describe Bob Dylan as the Caetano Veloso of the United States?" Garcia posited as cheers erupted from the audience.
Point well taken, but perhaps Garcia's evocation of these two pillars of Anglophonic rock is apropos for another reason. Veloso's latest release, 2006's Cê, is essentially a rock album — a pop-driven, meticulously assembled, emotionally straightforward set of songs deserving of its two Latin Grammy’s. Cê is a continuation of Veloso's unfettered genre-blending: Latin rhythms and gauzy touches of nylon guitar overlie a stripped-down rock aesthetic to come out sounding a little like The Cars boosted by a few bristling, Pixies-esque guitar effects. This direction is just another of many for an artist whose career has thrived on synthesizing his own ingenious music from myriad stylistic sources; it's the basis for tropicalismo, a fusion of Brazilian folk, bossa nova, avant-garde, and rock, with which Veloso gained notoriety early in his career.
The music Veloso and his backing band brought to Memorial Hall for the singer-songwriter's debut North Carolina appearance was mostly drawn from Cê. But balladic tunes from Veloso's early career peppered the set: the English-language "Nine out of Ten" (from 1972's Transa, his first Brazilian album after a four-year political exile in England), "Coração Vagabundo" (originally recorded with songstress Gal Costa in 1967), and "London London" from 1971's homesick A Little More Blue.
Clad in beat-up contrasting denim and sneakers with bright-orange laces, Veloso charmed the audience with an unself-conscious stage presence. His electric stringless guitar was brought out for about every other song; without it, he left the mic during instrumental sections to dance across the front of the stage in a manner than can only be described as adorably goofy. Guitarist and Cê co-producer Pedro Sa, drummer Marcelo Callado, and bassist/keyboard player Ricardo Gomes backed Veloso with an aggressive precision; a few particularly energetic moments — Sa's whiplike funk guitar, songs ending in torrents of feedback — made me want to hear Veloso and his band kick out the jams in a less formal venue.
Aside from a few songs in English, Veloso's lyrics, which alternate between sweetly introspective and bitingly louche, were lost on non-Portuguese speakers; after the ultra-catchy "Odeio," for which lights bathed the stage in bloody red, Veloso joked that he likes hearing audiences singing along to a song whose chorus means "I hate you." He performed a short, acoustic solo set, chatting with the audience in English about politics and blogs, before the band returned for a blistering end to the set, replete with flashes of blinding lights. Four loudly-demanded encores culminated in a driving recapitulation of "Odeio." Small but vocal groups of die-hard fans waved Brazil's flag. Based on their reactions, Veloso's current stylistic direction has continued his artistic success. For those not so familiar with his work, this fascinating performance should have served as an inducement to catch up with the rest of the world.