Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
Tuesday, July 19
Better than: The last artist you heard who sampled anything Brazilian.
What was impressive wasn’t that the 74-year-old Tom Zé leapt from the Avery Fisher stage-lip five times during his Tuesday performance, nor that the wiry Zé more or less sprung right back up unaided. It was that the Brazilian legend made each leap seem like an act of fresh anarchy—and that each time, it was. Lincoln Center doesn’t often see the likes of Zé, who made his first Manhattan appearance in 12 years last night. Jabbering in a non-stop (and untranscribable) monologue before, after, and sometimes during songs, the veteran performer shifted between Portuguese and frequently incomprehensible English as he illustrated his shaggy-dog yarns with wild gesticulations. It was high comedy in broad strokes, and a dumb show of sorts. Minus the dumb part.
For Zé, whose lyrics approach linguistic experiments even to Portuguese-speaking listeners, the antics served as an effective method of transliteration, though they often masked a five-piece band that brought gravitas, levity, and lived-in four-part harmonies to rich arrangements of some pretty serious music. Unlike his first-wave tropicalismo peers, Zé’s music grew more and more experimental with each passing decade while continuing to self-consciously build on basic Brazilian rhythms. He constructed a musique concrète proto-sampler involving typewriters, floor sanders, and a blender that he housed in the body of two Volkswagen microbuses; but he was working at a gas station when David Byrne rediscovered him in the late 1980s. (He thanked Byrne from the stage and consulted a bandmate for the proper translation of “Luaka Bop.”)
The show was no victory lap, the septuagenerian Zé in constant, trouble-making motion as he danced, curtsied (he was wearing an apron for much of the night), and babbled. He and his band half-improvised a lushly harmonized song about the New York subway, Zé marveling at the simple alliteration in the constantly repeated “stand clear of the closing doors, please,” praising the poet who wrote it, and modifying the phrase to something that sounded like “stand clear of the closing legs.” He helped stagehands move microphones, stopped songs in the middle, pounded on his chest so hard that his headset mic picked up on it, and jumped from the stage (the second time) to pull a surprised woman from her front row seat for a dance. Throughout, the band cooked. For Zé to literally sing the telephone book (and gorgeously) as he did during “P. Amarelas” at a nearly sold-out Alice Tully Hall was a triumph. But while uncontrollably gleeful to the point of near-mania, that was clearly not the kind of triumph Zé was interested in.
Closing the quiet portion of the show with an otherwise quiet arrangement of 1973’s “Brigitte Bardot,” the band built—for a few abrupt seconds—to a legitimately piercing squall. The stage lights beamed on the audience in a full, accusatory blast. One couple nearby shrieked in near-unison. Another woman reached for her earplugs. The noise was over quickly and didn’t return, but she left them in for the duration of the show’s deft electric segment anyway. Though willfully impish, Zé was an imp who—in the right circumstances—could clearly do some damage.
Critical bias: It doesn’t take much to seem spontaneous and/or kooky at Lincoln Center.
Overheard: “Rather harrowing, that!” (chirpy British male voice behind me, on Zé’s stage-jumps)
Random notebook dump: Dances with guitar, fondles it, moves headset mic out of the way, goes in for closer lick.
Filho do Pato (“Son of a Duck”)
João nos Tribunais (“João in a Court of Law”)
O Céu Desabou (“The Sky Fell”)
Sincope Jãobim (“Jãobim Syncopation”)
A Carta (“The Letter”)
O Riso e a Face
P. Amarelas (“Yellow Pages”)
Jingle do Disco
August, Angélica e Consolação
Feira de Santana
Todos os Olhos (“All Eyes”)