Os Mutantes at Lincoln Hall | Review and photos
It must be strange to be Sérgio Dias Baptista these days. When he and his brother Arnaldo founded Brazilian rock band Os Mutantes in the late 60s, a military coup had thrown the country into disarray. Out of the unrest emerged an artistic movement known as tropicalia.
The Baptista brothers and the band’s third founder, Rita Lee, were just teenagers when they released their 1968 debut. Their appetite for far-flung styles—from traditional native music and bossa nova to psychedelic rock from the U.K. and U.S.—helped solidify a movement that later inspired Kurt Cobain, Beck Hansen, David Byrne and countless more. Throughout the years of military dictatorship, the government censored media and exiled or tortured dissidents—a fate Os Mutantes evaded by couching their most defiant lyrics in distorted guitars played through homemade fuzzboxes.
On Saturday at Lincoln Hall, however, the biggest threat to sole remaining founder Sérgio Dias was a slipped vertebra. Dias had taken some pills for the pain, and as he sat down to play “Virginia,” the singer and guitarist joked, “We’ll see if I get stoned or something.” It was his 62nd birthday.
The worry for any aging rock royalty is that their novelty will fade with youth. This might be especially true for Os Mutantes, who forged their raucous blend of musical styles as fire-eyed teenagers in the midst of sexual and political revolution. Rita Lee refused to join the group’s reunion in 2006, dismissive of what she saw as a cash grab. Even before their dissolution in 1978, the wild energy of their early cuts had given way to more slickly produced albums, with some prog rock heavy-handedness overwhelming the urgency that marked their earlier experimentations.
But Dias’ seemingly inexhaustible thirst for new sounds is reason enough to look forward to a forthcoming album. Take the show-closing “Bat Macumba”—the band stitched a grungy swamp of distortion into the middle of this bouncy tropicalia standard, not content to simply chase the ghosts of a movement now decades old. The days of acid-drenched rebellion are gone, but nostalgia has not overshadowed the sheer joy of self-expression that is visible in Dias’ hoots, hollers and boyish stage banter.
Dias is an accomplished guitar player, and his Hendrix-inspired wailing has only improved over time. Political reform may have rendered Os Mutantes’ output less dangerous—Dias freely name-checked President Obama during “El Justiciero” Saturday—but their live show still feels alive.
A highlight of the night was “Balada do Louco.” One front-row devotee earned surprised cheers from the crowd and band alike when Dias handed him the microphone to sing the song’s first verse, which he nailed. “Eu juro que melhor / Não ser o normal,” Dias later belted. “I swear it’s best not to be normal.” A slipped vertebra did not stop the robe-clad senior citizen from ending songs with a hip thrust.
“They were kind of like our Beatles,” I overheard a Brazilian man say to his friend after the show. Classics like “A Minha Menina,” “Ando Meio Desligado,” and “Panis Et Circenses” still sound bright, though not entirely immune from the passage of nearly four decades and a couple founding band members. But the energy endures. Dias described the process of recording 2009’s Haih “as if time has ceased to exist, and I was bouncing from life to life, decades through decades, revisiting myself as a 16-year-old boy playing guitar and feeling so free and, as any teenager, indestructible.” It’s easy to see what he means: The 62-year-old teenager is at home onstage, in a sea of sound.
Brooklyn-based duo Writer opened the show. Touring to support their recent LP Brotherface, the San Diego-born siblings plumbed both dynamic extremes of a two-man rock band. James Ralph at times took one hand away from his thunderous toms to add keyboards to his brother’s fuzzed-out guitars and melodic howling. On other tunes their fraternal rhythmic-melodic melding took a more intimate form: Each grabbed a tambourine and bellowed off-mic for a few short tunes whose broad color palette and off-kilter song structures challenged expectations of drone rock.