Gilberto Gil is many things to many people, which explains why his Nokia Theater audience scanned like a New York City census smeared across a single room: bohemian matrons saddled with large baubles there for the culturally relevant Gil, Brazilian expats there for the patriotic Gil, dog-eared teenagers struggling against heavy lids for the freaky, avant-garde Gil. Unnervingly well-toned men ground against their girlfriends’ hips during reggae-lite moments; seniors became dewy-eyed during the samba covers. I observed joy in children and bemusement on the faces of scented men in Oxfords.
But “bringing people together”—and all the happy incongruities that old-fashioned ideal implies—has been Gil’s tack for over 35 years. As a founding member of Tropicália—an omnivorous style of ’60s Brazilian music that encompassed pop art, rock ‘n’ roll, samba, funk, tape collage, psychedelia, and noises that resemble both water and farts—Gil was seen as a clown by Brazil’s hardcore leftists (for liking Coke and going on TV) and as a threat by the government (for cracking wise on the military but refusing to give up Coke and TV appearances, like other hardcore leftists). His mysterious, undefined audience turned out to be a little bit of everyone.
Tuesday’s set fixated on themes of communication and interrelation. To start, his band built a spidery funk song from a ringtone (rather than the other way around), a gesture that encapsulated both his ruminative bent and his cheeky sensibility. (Though it sometimes makes him sound overly eager to be relevant—when he introduced his backing musicians as the Broadband, I heard a canned-comedy trombone sliding downward in the offstage of my mind.) His occasional corniness, though, makes him a more believably humanistic David Byrne: someone thrilled enough by the way people come together to join in, rather than organize a grant-funded multimedia installation about it.
Later, he interpolated “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” changing the chorus to “I can’t get no connection,” probably because he cares more about one than the other. He offered capsule histories of Brazilian music in both English and Portuguese—ever the diplomat—though speakers of the latter laughed louder, which made me feel like I was missing something. Attendees of all tongues were aided in the seemingly impossible task of clapping on rhythm without speeding up.
All the good cheer distracted me, at least for a while, from thinking about just how weird Gil is. Half-bald and dreadlocked, he looks a little like the Predator; he jiggled around onstage in the sexless, ungainly way someone might while alone in his or her own living room; he punctuated half his verses with vocal exclamations more common to seals, porpoises, and small children on playground swings. Admittedly, I groaned when he turned Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” into a samba and followed it with “The Girl From Ipanema” as reggae. He likely thought he was giving the people what they wanted. He was right—but he was also regressing toward the mean. So when he followed with the words “Now, also in a reggae beat, a Beatles song” and crept into “Something,” I closed my eyes slowly in shame. But it was actually pretty good. That scenario—a black Brazilian singing the Beatles in a Jamaican style—is the kind of chancy catchall Gil has built a career on. And while his efforts have strayed toward the more facile side of multicultural unity in the past few years, his commitment to the ideal stays firm. Halfway through, he even let loose a seal yelp to prove it.