Though underused, Chicago’s Park West theater is one of my favorite concert venues in the city. The space is a vast but intimate ballroom. There’s a large stage, a sizable dance floor, then tiered levels for tables, chairs and naugahyde booths. Everyone always seems to find a space, whether it be nestled in the booths, seated at the back bar or down front reveling in the nearness of the beat.
Yet for the Bebel Gilberto performance the concert promoters crammed tables and chairs all over the dance floor, thereby negating anyone’s desire to samba to the tropicalia sounds. How do you not leave any dance space for a show featuring one of the most rhythmic musical genres? Granted, the bossa nova craze that Bebel’s father João once fostered has passed, but the young Gilberto is here, bringing her enchanting and tantalizing Brazilian music built on a lubricious, slithery groove. Her debut release Tanto Tempo was filled with slinky, sexy downtempo dance beats begging the listener to blend with the bend and sway.
Tonight however, the crowd would be polite and staid, quietly cocktailing while Gilberto cooed and crooned her hypnotizing lullabies. Barring a surprise appearance by Kevin Bacon, the only person getting footloose was Gilberto herself. Onstage Bebel wrapped her warm, honeyed voice around breezy, buoyant melodies as she sashayed and samba-ed in time. Devoid of most of the electronic wizardry and mixmaster DJ knob-twiddling of Tanto Tempo, Gilberto’s concert began with the simple, soft and breathy beauty of the human voice as echoed by the light rip-raps of drummer Magrus Borges and percussionist Davi Riviera and the sweet strums of guitarist Pedro Gomes. Though I don’t understand Portuguese, Gilberto’s brand of Brazilian pop speaks a language anyone in love with music can comprehend.
The interesting thing about world music in which one has little clue to the poetics or imagery of the singer’s native tongue is that the sounds are often just so pretty and dazzling; they could be the most tired of clichés or platitudes, but who cares? Problems can arise when such a performer indulges an English language tune where their voice doesn’t always sound so at home or captivating. I overheard naysayers grumbling that Gilberto was pandering too much with her songs sung in English. Yes, I too could listen to Gilberto sing in nothing but Portuguese, but when she unfurls the well-known and well received classic “So Nice”, with its lilting melody and wispy summer vibe complementing a voice that’s like butterflies dancing with nectar-kissed wings, does it really matter in what language she sings? Or should she be faulted for a cover of Caetano Veloso’s “Baby” that, unlike Os Mutantes psychedelic freak-out version, steered closer to Gal Costa’s reading, that of an enchanting jazzy love letter? Here Gilberto’s voice was quivering with passion while Gomes fingered furious jazz guitar riffs and the piano sang with a melodious strain.
From the dreamy to the haunting, Gilberto slipped into the dead-funky cool of “Samba da Bencao”, the opening track from Tanto Tempo, with its trance-heavy shuffle, swirling tinkling piano, and near dub narcotic beat. Here the band really shined, Borges brushing the beat while Viera punctuated time with percussive slaps and tickles of congas and gourds and chimes, then in came guitarist Gomes with his moody wistful guitar plicks and plucks. Rising, falling and flickering like the dazzling lights reflected from the disco ball was Gilberto’s voice, a sweet siren’s song of Brazilian honey. No matter what the proper translation of the Portuguese in which she sang, her voice exhorted, “please come dance to my song, sway softly to the rhythms, grab your lover and glide with ease, feel the groove.” Well, that’s what it said to me anyway.
Gilberto delivered a strong performance, using her voice as an instrument, a hushed woodwind or a strong and powerful horn scatting and la-da-daing blending beautifully with her band’s tight jams. Sure, there were a few missteps. On “Every Moment”, a song sung simply to the accompaniment of a strummed guitar, Gilberto’s voice was powerful but seemingly lacking in heart. The obligatory extended jam of “Close Your Eyes” where Bebel coaxed indulgent solos out of each of her band members dragged on rather interminably. Yet two quibbles does not a concert ruin. Now if one can just get some room on the dance floor for a bossa nova dance party next time Gilberto hits town it’ll be like Carnaval in Bahia.