Portuguese Lesson

Exactly once in my life have I heard Portuguese spoken before Thursday night’s Caetano Veloso show at the posh Chicago Theater. To further underscore my lack of preparedness to hear this man sing, I can summarize my knowledge of all things Brazilian in one word: Ronaldo.

It is no surprise then that my free ticket was actually procured by a more prestigious member of the media, the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot. Thus I must bid thanks to Greg for exposing me to an artist I would have never sought out on my own. Sadly enough, my musical tendencies are all too frequently similar to the Midwesterner traveling abroad who looks for the Golden Arches—in my case, that’s a dive bar with cheap beer and loud guitars.

Let me attempt then to translate Caetano Veloso and his band of six percussionists, a cellist, a bass player, and an electric guitar player into language that your average Midwestern burger eater might understand. My notes from the show consist primarily of “Sounds like… Latin party music; Jaco Pastorius; ’80s movie music; Tears For Fears; fist-raising, arm pumping anthems; big, distorted synth sounds; Pink Floyd; Morphine; fuzzed guitars; light rock; pretty, solo acoustic guitar; Woody Guthrie; Jonathan Richman; AC-DC’s “Thunderstruck”; Crazy Horse; the Scorpions; CSNY vocal harmonies; jazz fusion; mad percussion beating faster and faster with echoes from the back of the hall quickening your pulse; rhythmic rap; Ozzy Osbourne; Desmond Dekker.”

Huh? Yes, I also look at this list and can make little sense of it. Further explanation is certainly necessary.

Veloso is a 60-year-old man who came on stage looking like a well-tanned Paul McCartney, though taller and thinner. He has bright eyes that burn with a fire seldom seen in men a third his age. The guy does a diverse style of rock that’s difficult to characterize—especially without hearing his back-story, understanding the evolution in Brazilian pop music, or having an intimate knowledge of his 30-plus albums. Notes in the program read, “For over 35 years, Caetano Veloso has been a major musical, social, and cultural force in Brazil…” He got thrown in jail and exiled to London for singing revolutionary songs back in the late 1960s. His stage introduction called him the Brazilian Bob Dylan. This paragraph could go on and on and on, but then again, that would require me to have done more homework, which I didn’t do.

Thankfully, it didn’t matter as much as just listening and, despite my ignorance, enjoying the herky-jerky pastiche of sound that started and stopped and changed and rambled and soared and fell throughout the night.

At times I had the probably blasphemous thought that Veloso is a bit of a kook, dancing around and wildly flapping his arms like a skinny bird. Some of the music sounded dated and overwrought to my ears. And of course there wasn’t much chance of having a clue what Veloso was singing about. But just as I would flay anyone who says Dylan can’t sing, I’m sure many of the fans in the audience would accuse me of a lack of understanding. And they’d be right—to a point.

I did hear just how perfectly Veloso placed every tone within his sparse pieces, like his rendition of “Star Dust.” How the lightness of his voice sculpted every word as he modulated his pitch in a prettier, almost operatic version of the blues. That’s when I was most touched by this “master” who spoke to me in a language I could not begin to comprehend.

As Kot said earlier in the day, “Words are the last thing to make an impression sometimes.”

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