Caetano Veloso, by almost any definition, is a great artist. A poet, a singer, a songwriter and a musician, he is, at 57, a master of many media of expression, his work transcending its Brazilian roots to embrace a fully global view. And all these qualities were on display Saturday night at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.
A slender figure blessed with the moves of a dancer and the visual communicativeness of a mime, Veloso was the constant flash point of the program, igniting his 10 musicians, charming the passionately enthusiastic, overflow crowd and singing with his astonishingly versatile voice.
Seated front and center, with a group of Bahian percussionists on one side and a horn-and-rhythm section on the other, he performed with grace and subtlety, never making a false move, either musically or visually. On some numbers he simply played guitar and sang, his lilting vocal sound interacting perfectly with his understated but vital chording. On other pieces he abandoned his seated position in favor of elegant movements around the stage.
Although he sang a few numbers from his early work (the anthemic "Terra" was one) and a gorgeous rendering of Ary Barroso's classic "Na Baixa do Sapateiro," he concentrated on his just-released album "Livro." His expressed goal for the project was to combine Bahian percussion with the jazz timbres associated with the Miles Davis/Gil Evans albums of the '50s and '60s. With the aid of arrangers Jaques Morelenbaum and Luiz Brasil he has done that and considerably more. His performance not only satisfied Veloso's timbral and rhythmic intentions, but also framed the fusionist qualities that have been a part of his work since he was one of the founders of Brazil's Tropicalia movement of the late '60s.
Songs such as "Manhattan" (which finds the spiritual connection between New York and its Native American sources) and "Livros" (reflecting the energies behind Veloso's completion of a book about Brazilian culture), "Doideca" (a whimsical take on 12-tone music and techno-pop) and "How Beautiful Could a Being Be" (a one-sentence rhythmic samba with Heidegger overtones, written by his son Moreno)--all performed brilliantly--were clearly the product of an incessantly inquisitive creative mind.
At one point, he was joined on stage by pop star Beck for a brief, celebratory duet. But this evening (he was also scheduled to perform Sunday) was Veloso's, and what was most impressive about the music, in total, was the fact that Veloso's rich, poetic imagery was constantly illuminated by lovely melodies and irresistible rhythms. About halfway through the performance, the crowd, unable to sit still, thronged through the aisles to surround the stage. And the balance of the program became a shared experience, a musical/mystical happening, with Veloso serving as a sophisticated shaman, joyously conducting an evening of creative interactivity.