Caetano Veloso and Banda Black Rio
Bicho Baile Show (1978)
4. London, London
5. Na Baixa do Sapateiro
6. Leblon via Vaz Lobo
7. Maria fumaça
8. Two Naira fifty Kobo
10. Alegria, alegria
12. Caminho da roça
13. Qualquer coisa
14. Chuva, suor e cerveja
Producedy by Caetano Veloso and Banda Black Rio. Recorded by Mazola at the Teatro Carlos Gomes, Rio de Janeiro, 1978
Long-time readers of this blog may be surprised to see this post, because there seems to be a mistaken assumption that I somehow strongly dislike work of Caetano Veloso. This is not true but is a direct result of my “trolling” the public, and particularly the gringo public, by saying that I in general I would rather reach for a Jorge Ben record, any day of the week, over most Caetano records. That statement was actually about Jorge Ben and the degree to which his music has not been regarded as “culturally significant” art as has someone like Veloso, but the ensuing comment thread turned into something completely different. I still stand by the original statement, but I gave up “trolling” in my New Years Resolutions, so why not let’s have a blog post that treats Caetano a bit more seriously than all that.
In recent years it is not uncommon to hear fans of Caetano employing a “you have to be able separate the art from the artist” argument, which puts him in the same uneasy company as famous film directors accused of child molestation or rape, so I’m not sure if that is a line of reasoning that works for him in the long run. And the fact is that this kind of compartmentalization might be more valid if the man himself didn’t insist on being such a public figure, and continuously baiting the Brazilian public with polemical statements. Why can’t he just be the reclusive genius I want him to be? Well, if he did that, then he also wouldn’t really be Caetano. Fair enough. But artists who make a point to that kind of high profile are also fair game for a little malicious snark from the likes of bloggers, especially when these artists start spouting reactionary inanities and conservative bullshit. Granted he has not gone all Ted Nugent or anything (yet) but in the words of one Frank Vincent Zappa (in self-parody), “shut up and play your guitar” already. Even Caetano’s own mother wished he would shut up and stop giving interviews. I could ignore his provocations more easily if it didn’t seem partly a maneuver to stay “relevant” in the public eye long after his stopped creating music of any real consequence, records that more often than not are embarrassing to listen to, with attempts to sound contemporary by singing Nirvana songs, or “rapping” on his mediocre ‘Tropicália 2’ record with Gil, or be “alternative” by channeling 1980s U2 in a record made in the late-2000s. When Bob Dylan suddenly converted to evangelical Christianity, he made a fantastic gospel-tinged album, so it was easier for me to swallow whatever nonsense was going on with him personally. Perhaps this will sound laden with “ageism”, but flailing around on stage like a ragdoll and writhing on stage in near-fetal position (c.f. the film of Phono 73, his performance of “Asa Branca”) is perhaps edgy performance art when you are in your twenties and its 1973 (emphasis on “perhaps”, by the way), but running around the stage and out into the audience and high-fiving audience members like some kind of faux-Tropical-Springsteen when you reach your 60s just seems kind of desperate (c.f. Caetano on his tour for the album “Cê”
Iconoclasm has always been a major weapon in Caetano’s trick bag, and for the most part it has served a useful and important function, engaging with contemporary debates about culture and authenticity and subverting orthodoxies. He did this during the televised song festivals when he and Gilberto Gil “went electric” in the moment of Tropicália, angering cultural nationalists who thought of electric guitars as weapons of imperialism; He did this during the Phono 73 concert by bringing Odair José, a famous singer of so-called “low quality” romantic pop-rock or brega on stage for a duet of one of Odair’s big compositions of the day; and he did it with his album Bicho from 1977 and the live show that promoted it. Now regarded almost universally as a classic of 1970s post-Tropicália MPB, it may be difficult for the outsider to fathom how it could have caused controversy or polemic in it’s day. Many critics and cultural gatekeepers seemed to hate it. In an echo of complaints from similar quarters ten years earlier, objections were raised to his appropriation of “foreign” sounds, in this case funk or disco (sort of, but only from a disco-phobic perspective). In fact both Bicho and Gilberto Gil’s Refavela were inspired by a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, for the Festival of Black Arts in 1977. Gil’s record has a proto-world beat sound to it, and is celebratory, energetic, and uplifting in the way you might expect. Bicho on the other hand tended to be more ponderous, sonically murky, and emotionally mood, but also full of inspired songs with engaging arrangements and brilliant lyrics (this goes without saying for Caetano, and is the one saving grace on even his most musically stale records). (** see the important note at the bottom if you’ve never heard this album..)
I’m not sure how much of the live show for Bicho was planned before the album was released, or if the show was Caetano’s way of upping the ante even further with his detractors. For his backing band he chose the ensemble Banda Black Rio. Now, I happen to like Banda Black Rio quite a bit, but once again here was a group that challenged what it meant to make “Brazilian music” and had some commercial success while doing it (which music critics from seemingly all countries repeatedly used to marginalize or ignore certain kinds of music during the 70s and 80s). Stylistically they shared as many similarities with Earth Wind and Fire or The Crusaders as they did with Dorival Caymmi, making largely instrumental records filled with jazz-funk-fusion which they tempered with dendê and coconut.
I remember when I first heard about the existence of this record and was so excited to hear it, only to feel a big disappointment. Had I just set my expectations too high? Maybe but I don’t think that’s all of it. I think it is more that this collaboration was one of those ideas that sounds better on paper. At first listen the whole show sounds almost kind of unrehearsed, but the musicianship is of course impeccable and there’s not really a note out of place – Brazilian musicians of this caliber just don’t “do” unrehearsed. Maybe it was over-rehearsed to death, then? It’s not so much like polishing a diamond as sanding all the facets down. Banda Black Rio were maybe just incapable of injecting the needed emotion into their playing to make these collaboration work. Their own first few albums were, by and large, instrumental affairs. Several of the tunes here have these wonderfully moody intro bits that make you think you are about to hear some seriously heavy stuff, and then the song kicks in and just kind of stays at a plateau of sameness. They get several pieces all to themselves where they stretch out and do that thing they do – playing classics of the canon like Ary Barroso’s “Na baixo do sapateiro” and Luiz Gonzaga’s “Baião” and turning them into funky rumb-shakers wherein their soloists let loose their formidable jazz chops. It’s a shame they can’t muster the same level of presence into the material with Caetano, because these are some of his best songs. The opening cut Odara ought to literally blow us away, but it just lacks the urgency of the album version, a track that is most likely the deepest funk Caetano has ever put his name to. This live version sounds like Caetano performing with a pickup band in a casino, albeit in 1978 which means I still would have thoroughly enjoyed it. Interestingly the next track, the mellow Tigressa, comes across much more convincingly and could be (or could have been:?) my favorite thing on the whole record. Perhaps because Caetano’s acoustic guitar sets the pace – the guy is a master of lilting downtempo stuff like this that isn’t quite a ballad but simmers along nicely. His astoundingly well-crafted lyrics, and his way of working a melody all sustain this evocative portrait, and then Banda Black Rio even manage to fuck that all up by going into double-time at the end of the tune, instead of just staying in the same tempo and laying into it, swinging it a little harder. These guys could have benefited from a summer camp retreat with Isaac Hayes (hell, who couldn’t?). Now although I am putting the blame on them them here, I will admit that I wasn’t hanging around at the rehearsals, and I have no doubt in my mind that the arrangement would not be this way if Caetano wasn’t okay with it. In fact he may have insisted on it: here again might be that particular aspect of his iconoclasm that starts to try my patience, pushing an idea farther than it probably deserves to go in the interest of his larger masterplan, turning on the boogie with a song that plainly doesn’t need it.
“London, London”, his most famous tune from his “exile” recorded under the colors of the Union Jack, works far better than it ought to given all the above circumstances. Enough to rekindle my hope for this venture. It’s solid. Then three consecutive instrumentals from Banda Black Rio while Caetano goes backstage or maybe out in the alleyway to have sex in a taxi cab (he is fond of getting it on in taxi cabs, as seen here in this 1983 film). BBB sounds damn good here on both the originals and reinterpretations. Then comes another tune that seems ON PAPER like it would work really well. “Two Naira Fifty Kobo” is one of my favorite songs on “Bicho,” and this … just… doesn’t… work. Mind you, I saw Caetano perform the same song twenty-two years later with a different arrangement and that one sucked too. Maybe I am just being a bastard here – How he dare he mess with MY song! It’s his and he can do what he wants with it, fair enough. When I saw that show I thought his rendition of the song was watered-down and tepid and a product of a decade of drifting towards ‘world music’-isms; had I only known this 1978 version at the time, I would have realized he had managed to water it down plenty in just a year after first recording it.
“Gente” is a song that naturally lends itself to the jazzed up execution of this band, but (not to repeat myself or anything) it just isn’t anywhere near as strong as the version performed for the Doces Bárbados show. In fact this ventures into just plain cheesy territory with some of the choices of instrumental embellishments and flourishes. But wait, there’s more – you haven’t yet heard the disco-funk interpretation of the song that forever changed the course of contemporary Brazilian music, “Alegria Alegria,” the anthem of Tropicália. At this point I begin to suspect that Caetano is just trolling us and trying to piss people off. (And hence, I don’t mind trolling a certain component of his devotees). Is he serious? One never knows with him. This song serves no purpose unless it is to illustrate “we did it because we can.” More instrumental tunes. I’d like to think Caetano is offstage doing some blow but he was probably writing off editorials to send to the New York Times or Le Monde or something. Then he comes back and they phone in a version of Qualquer Coisa, a perfectly good song from his album of the same name, but which in this version has all the period charm of the plaid wallpaper we used to have my basement in the house where I grew up. If you looked at it while listening to music and let your focus go soft, you might sometimes have a vision of a kilted Scotsman sporting a giant afro. If only this track left such an enduring memory. Or any memory at all. I’ve already forgotten it. Then the album ends with a frevo, “Chuva, suor e cerveja,” which I think Caetano also recorded for that carnaval album he made with a whole bunch of frevo on it, I don’t remember and I’m too lazy to check right now. Hell if you actually made it this far into “Bicho Baile Show” and still care, you win the Stalwart Listener Award and I tip my hat to you.
Of course don’t let ME tell you what to think, give it a spin! I feel badly now, like I should attach a motto to this blog, “Ruining Your Favorite Music Since 2008.” I swear I thought I was going to write a fairly positive piece about this album when I decided to blog about it, reassuring my readers that I do in fact have a healthy appreciation for Mr. Veloso. I thought I’d pick a less obvious choice, but I guess there is a reason why this record is seldom talked about. I promise to pick a better one next time.
Fun drinking game, at least? Take a shot of your favorite artisinal cachaça (Caetano won’t be having any Pitú) every time he meows like a cat or yelps like a dog! Just don’t drive home, kids. Take a taxi. And hope Caetano isn’t in the back making out with anybody when you climb inside.
** Note: If you have not yet had the pleasure of hearing ‘Bicho’, which is truly a great album, do yourself a favor and make sure you seek out the *original* mix and now the godawful travesty that is the last reissue of the record. This is not just me being a purist here – As murky as the original mix might have been in certain spots, it is far superior to what he did on remixing it. In part, that remix involved splashing everything with reverb to presumably make it sound more “modern” than the very dry 1977 mix, and the drums sound like they could have been re-recorded (although I don’t think they were) with an awful gated-drum sound that could have come off a record from 1991. The result is a completely different aesthetic experience, so seek it out in its original.