Shortly after the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s expanded the palette of popular music, a collective of young Brazilian musicians gathered to record the even more radical Tropicália: ou Panis et Circenses. Compared to other records emanating from the US and UK in 1968, Tropicália wasn’t all that crazy, really. Frank Zappa was way more out there, and poor Brian Wilson was so far ahead of the curve that even he couldn’t keep up. In Brazil, however, the music scene was far less adventurous. Compared to the lilting strains of the samba, the Tropicalistas’ sounds were wildly subversive.
In addition to long-established solo stars such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa, Tropicália featured the Brazilian psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes (obvious translation: the Mutants). After their key contributions to this groundbreaking work, they would go on to record a handful of albums in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Os Mutantes (1968) and Mutantes (‘69) are essential listening, brimming with zany and intelligent pop music. Their two subsequent LPs, 1970’s A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado and ‘71’s Jardim Elétrico veered more towards straight psychedelic rock. Though less inventive, both are solid albums. These four records offer up the vast majority of the songs performed on Mutantes Live. The band’s core of Arnaldo Baptista (on bass, keyboards, and vocals), his brother Sérgio Dias (guitar, vocals), and singer Rita Lee crafted masterfully skewed tunes that fused Brazilian popular sounds with current “Western” rock trends, resulting in a sound all their own.
Os Mutantes kicked Rita Lee out of the band in 1972, after which the quality of their releases fell sharply. The two sides still aren’t ready to work together again, so the reconstituted Mutantes are without their original female star. Since the group’s arrangements rely on the leads and harmonies Lee originally provided, they took on a new vocalist, Zélia Duncan, for their comeback lineup. The rhythm section wasn’t fully formed until album two, and bassist Liminha and drummer Dinho Leme didn’t officially join the band until 1971. The former is busy producing, but Leme has returned to his throne.
Amazingly, Mutantes Live was recorded during the band’s very first reunion show at London’s Barbican Theater in May of 2006. It’s clear from the incredibly tight performances of this often-tricky material that they didn’t just hop up on stage and hope for the best. Today’s Os Mutantes are every bit as skilful and expressive as they were in their heyday. Opening track “Don Quixote” features prog-tastic vocal synchronizations worthy of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, while “Cantor de Mambo” is a sultry rocker with a Santana-like combination of hand drumming and scorching lead guitar, and “2001” is an odyssey-in-miniature that turns on a dime from spaced-out jam to dizzy pop tune. All of the band’s best numbers are here, including the singles “I Feel a Little Spaced Out (Ando Meio Desligado)” and “Top Top”, the beautiful ballad “Baby”, and plenty of other trippy ditties from their songbook.
Mutantes Live is, above all else, a joyous album. In their original context, many of these songs possessed paranoid undertones. Given that the country was overthrown by a military regime around the time they were recording, this edge is understandable. After all, their pals Gil and Veloso were exiled from Brazil. Energetically, the Mutantes of 2006 have turned these vibes inside out, unleashing a 21-track party across two CDs. Joining this fête is super-fan and “Naturalismo” founder Devendra Banhart, the indie folk bard whose championing of Tropicalia rivals Beck’s, but not that of Luaka Bop label founder and former head Talking Head David Byrne. Regardless, it is Banhart who, along with his buddy Noah Georgeson, helps out on the most wonderfully insidious Os Mutantes track of all time, “Bat Macumba”. The song is so simple and catchy it could have been a hit on Sesame Street. The lyrics begin with the line, “Bat macumba ê ê, bat macumba oba”, after which one syllable is chopped off the end with each repetition. Once you get to “bat”, you start building it up again. It only takes one listen for this track to be stuck in your head for a week.
Os Mutantes do their best to reset your brain with the sing-songy “Panis et Circenses”. (This translates to “bread and circuses”, a nearly two-millennium-old phrase meant to criticize a government that keeps its populace placated with readily available, low-quality food and entertainment. It’s tough to imagine, I know.) Anyway, in addition to being the group’s signature song, it’s quite catchy and makes for the perfect finish to this excellent album. It’s wonderful to hear Os Mutantes at it again and sounding as vibrant as ever. We can only hope the reunion tour captured on Mutantes Live is the beginning of a new era of music from the band. Clearly, they are still at the top of their game.