Gilberto Gil promised a “very simple concert” at the Nokia Theater on Thurday night: just a trio with Mr. Gil and his son Bem Gil on guitars, with his longtime arranger Jaques Morelenbaum on cello.
The simplicity was relative. In a way, Mr. Gilberto was escalating; on his previous American tour, he performed solo. But the scale of the music remained modest and acoustic. The arrangements were lucid, using only stringed instruments until Bem Gil switched to tambourine for the brisk train song “Expresso 2222.” And some of the pleasures were simple: the airy propulsion of the guitars and cello, the supple (and sometimes tricky) melodies and a voice that stayed irrepressibly playful.
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Mr. Gil, 67, whistled, whooped in falsetto phrases, screeched jungle birdcalls, scat-sang like a trombone and plummeted down to sustained, buzzing notes that were both wry and resolute. The arrangements fully exposed his voice, complete with scrapes and missed notes as well as that vibrant falsetto, and it was all the more approachable for the flaws.
Yet the amiable performance was layered with complexities within. Mr. Gilberto’s songs hold large ideas. With lyrics that could easily stand alone as poetry, in a Portuguese that revels in elegant wordplay, the songs ponder traditions (Brazilian and African), technology, love, death, art, divinity, metaphysics and the meaning of humanity.
Mr. Gil had two new songs, both written for his family: “Das Duas Uma” (“From Two, One”), a wedding song for his daughter Maria, and “Quatro Coisas” (“Four Things”), written for his wife, Flora. Both are benevolent but unsentimental reflections on lasting love. The set also paid homage to Mr. Gil’s idols and peers, among them Dorival Caymmi, Caetano Veloso and, in a snippet, the Beatles.
With just fingers on strings, Mr. Gilberto’s trio meticulously sketched the sound of much larger ensembles. Bowing his cello, Mr. Morelenbaum often provided chamber-music counterpoint; pizzicato, he joined the intricate syncopations of the father-and-son guitarists. Plucking and strumming in a pinpoint rhythmic mesh, they hinted at samba-school percussion, jazzy swing and light-fingered rock and funk.
In the concert’s most austere song, Mr. Gil sang “Não Tenho Medo da Morte” (“I’m Not Afraid of Death”). The lyrics fear not death but the long and painful farewell of dying. Mr. Gil eliminated the plush studio arrangement used on his 2008 album, “Banda Larga Cordel” (Warner Music Latina). He transposed the song down into his lowest, most sepulchral register, and sang it while just tapping on the guitar and occasionally plucking a single note. It was pensive and haunted: ascetic but by no means simple.
New York Times via Jornal.us