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Even within the tropicália movement (which rivals genres like postpunk for artsy-politico content), Brazil’s Os Mutantes stood out with their multi-hemispheric stew and a story that’s pure Behind the Music fodder. Brothers Sergio Baptista (guitar) and Arnaldo Baptista (keyboards)—along with singer Rita Lee—hit a late ’60s/early ’70s peak with their baroque, psychedelicized bossa nova. But after Arnaldo and Rita’s quickie marriage dissolved, she was out of the band, he was frequenting psych wards, and Sergio took to session work, while the band’s catalog remained seemingly permanently out of print. But fans like Beck, Kurt Cobain, and David Byrne emerged, and Mutantes records were reissued stateside in the late ’90s. While Sergio and Arnaldo renewed their family ties, Rita kept to her solo career, so with new singer Zelia Duncan, the Baptistas recently resurrected OM after three decades apart, topping it off with their first ever U.S. shows.
The Webster Hall gig, furthermore, was the first of the first. But after the crowd got over the initial shock of such a world-shaking event, some cold reality sank in. Other than his occasional wry and dry comic singing, Arnaldo added little flair behind his keys while Zelia provided a strangely husky-voiced replacement for Rita’s sweet songbird act, though two young backup singers helped recreate the records’ decorative harmonies. It also didn’t help that toward the middle of the show, the band favored its Americanized mid-’70s period rife with Eurovision pap (“Virginia”) and soggy English lyrics (“Top Top”).
But Sergio soon brushed those quibbles aside and stole the show. Decked out in knee-high boots and long scarves, he beamed smiles and praised Gotham more than a visiting politician, only too glad to play the guitar god rock star role as he peeled off solo after solo of sustained, Santana-ish fuzztones while leaning forward into the crowd for emphasis. And toward the end of the 90-minute affair, Os Mutantes hit their stride as Sergio one-upped Eric Carmen with “Balada Do Luoco,” a ballad framed by turkey calls and acidic guitar solos—a rapid-fire rock number (“Cabeludo Patriota”) and a joyous doo-wop piece (“A Minha Menina”) followed in kind. At those moments,, their bizarre sense of humor and history emerged intact, which is more than you can say of most ’60s bands who speak psychedelia as a first language.