“I am a Brazilian,” writes Caetano Veloso in his autobiography, Tropical Truth, “And I became, more or less involuntarily, a singer and composer of songs.” For Veloso — and his longtime friend and musical collaborator Gilberto Gil — making music was involuntary, an inevitability, and, ultimately, a revolution. The two were instrumental in the late-1960s founding of Tropicália, an artistic movement that was both a reaction against political injustice and a call to arms for freedom in life, music, and beyond.
Veloso and Gil have endured a lot since then. Brazil’s former military dictatorship deemed them “subversive” and threw them in jail for several years; exile in London followed. After nearly fifty years and several Grammys, the two can celebrate simply surviving, and that’s exactly what they did Wednesday night, at a sold-out evening at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Together, the they sailed through a combined century’s worth of music, sharing stories with a rapt and joyful crowd.
As the curtains rose, the two guitarists launched into the plucky “Back in Bahia,” harmonizing about their shared Brazilian home state with panache. With the flags of every Brazilian state hanging behind them and many a loving shout in Portuguese from the crowd, it felt like a homecoming.
In songs like the swoony “Coração Vagabundo,” Veloso’s crisp vocals seamlessly melded with the breathier tone in Gil’s (who occasionally scats, and, thankfully, damn well), with an impromptu rhythm section created by G trains leaving the Fulton stop pulsing underneath their feet. Neither player overshadowed his companion: Even when Gil took the lead during several spectacularly fast songs, Veloso put his guitar down, clapped, and shoulder shimmied from his seat; eventually, he stood up and danced.
Later in the night the friends joined to sing, in English, the Veloso-penned “Nine Out of Ten,” in which Veloso confesses that “I know one day I must die.” But death doesn’t seem to be a concern for these two, who are now well into their seventies. They played nearly two hours of nonstop music (there was almost no stage banter), ending the night with a warm hug before dancing offstage to a standing ovation.
When they returned for the inevitable encore, they delivered some more treasures, before closing on a stunning rendition of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” The cheery singalong was a perfect end to a night that was less a performance and more bearing witness to a great meeting of minds. You didn’t need to speak Portuguese to understand the universality of what these lifers were channeling through song: Tales of love, sadness, and, above all and against all odds, hope.