Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Tape from California [SF report #1: J. Gilberto live]

Freshly returned from San Francisco, and here's the promised update on last Friday night's João Gilberto concert at the beautiful Masonic Auditorium high atop Nob Hill. (Guess I'm not the only one out there blogging about the show, as this ecstatic notice indicates.)

The seats I was so worried about turned out not to be so bad at all: full profile, no obstruction, fairly close. The odd angle simply gave me a unique perspective from which to view Gilberto's artistry. It's a shame I don't know shit about guitar technique, because I probably would have learned a lot about his approach this way. As it was, I was mainly able to appreciate what I assume was the set-list--not the usual 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, but a poster-board-sized monstrosity probably better suited to his 72-year-old eyes. (Believe me, I can relate.)

The crowd was pretty much what I expected: a mix of jazz fans, old-school bossa fans in their 50s and 60s, youngish hipsters, and a few transplanted Brazilians. Sadly, lots of them arrived fashionably late (probably to avoid the non-existent opening act), which meant more and more of them would loudly scurry to their seats after every number. From what I'd read, Gilberto is the sort to abandon a show when he's unhappy with the acoustics or pissed about audience behavior, so I was practically expecting either a mass reprimand or a walk-off, but neither was the case. He entered to a standing ovation, took his seat on the bare stage, and played song after song with only the slightest of banter, usually either in Portuguese or in barely intelligible English. About the only thing I was able to make out all night long was something like, "Please wait while I fix guitar," at which point a new one was brought out. About 45 minutes into the show he left the stage--to thunderous applause, of course--and then returned to play what we all assumed was an encore... and then another, and another, and another ... the unending string of which turned into pretty much a second full-length set. Maybe the premature departure was really just a chance for him to stretch his legs? Pee break?

The songs were uniformly gorgeous. Novice that I am, I only recognized the hits--"Desafinado," "Chega de Saudade," and the show-closing "Girl from Ipanema"--but every single number was a treat. (Judging from the lack of recognition applause for all but the biggies, I gather the rest of the crowd was equally unfamiliar with the material.) From the moment he began singing the very first number, in a voice often no louder than a whisper, I "got" exactly what he was all about more clearly than I have from any recording I've heard so far. As I see/hear it, it's all about the challenge of singing softly in a large room--being big and small at the same time. This kind of tension would be impossible to pull off without microphones, and yet there's an amazing sort of one-on-one intimacy in the performance.

Some artists (Dylan, Madonna, Neil Young, Caetano) change one or more aspects of their style several times over the course of their career, and the appeal comes from witnessing the transformations. Others (Leonard Cohen always comes to mind first, but the last several Arto Lindsay albums are another good example) keep doing minor variations on the same theme for decades, and that can be fascinating, too. Gilberto is definitely in the latter category, and given how constant his sound is, particularly when it's produced by just his lone voice and guitar, I expected to lose interest after a while, but in fact the longer he played, the more I came to appreciate that particular texture. His voice has clearly aged over the years, but it's still a joy to listen to. (You can get a good sense of the texture I'm referring to from the 2000 album JOÃO VOZ E VIOLÃO, a copy of which I found at another point during the trip--it's a combo of old and new songs, all performed with just his guitar as accompaniment.)

Don, who entered into this little adventure cold, was more engaged than I would have expected. I don't think he was blown away, but he stayed with the performance the entire time; when João walked offstage the first time, his response was, "That's it?" --which is certainly better than, "Alright! Now we can get the hell outta here!"

One highlight for me was an incredibly charming rendition of Gershwin's "'Swonderful" during that super-encore. His phonetic pronunciation of the only English lyrics of the night gave them a delicacy and vulnerability that made me smile. (Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure he just kept repeating the chorus, dropping all the verses, so it started to feel like a nursery rhyme after a while.) Speaking of merriment, a woman in the row in front of me felt compelled to giggle near the end of each song. I'm not sure why, except that the music was so light and perfect that good-hearted laughter seemed an entirely appropriate response.

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