Os Mutantes May 11, Hard Rock Cafe (Strip)
Saturday night brought a rock ’n’ roll history lesson of sorts to Las Vegas. While The Rolling Stones’ took over the MGM Grand Garden Arena, lesser-known—but, some might argue, equally influential—contemporaries Os Mutantes played to a sparse yet enraptured crowd next door at the Hard Rock Cafe on the Strip.
It was initially disconcerting to see just a few dozen bodies on the floor; this is, after all, a band Kurt Cobain once wrote to begging for a reunion, and which has been cited as an influence by Beck, Of Montreal, David Byrne and Flea. Still, the pioneering Tropicalia psych-rock group, which hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil, has remained largely under the radar in the U.S., due in part to its Portuguese lyrics and experimental, culture-fusing sound.
But you don’t need a translator to understand that, unlike the Stones, Os Mutantes are less about nostalgia than reinterpreting old tracks through improvisation to create a unique energy and dynamic for each performance. Frontman and sole remaining founding member Sérgio Dias proved that each time he took to his guitar to explore solos with the band, or joined singer Esmeria Bulgari and guitarist Vitor Trida for dripping psychedelic vocal harmonies. It's rare to see a band that's been around for close to 50 years play with that kind of vitality, as if still curious about what new rhythms and phrasings they might be able elicit from even their most played-out songs; then again, that kind of boundary-pushing musicianship is something that only comes with time.
That said, the set also marked a departure from tradition with a number of songs from Fool Metal Jack, the band's first (mostly) English language album, released in April. It’s interesting to finally connect to the band lyrically, though deeply subversive political content has been a part of the music since the group formed as outcasts under Brazil’s military dictatorship during the late 1960s an '70s.
Many of the politically charged new songs were inspired by Las Vegas, where Dias has lived with his wife since 2007, including housing crisis elegy “The Dream Is Gone.” The hometown connection and Bush-bashing messages were embraced by the young crowd of punks and hipsters, but those tracks tended to take a step back musically to make room for the message; in the end it was still ultimately Tropicalia garage jams like “A Minha Menina” and “Bat Macumba” that got everyone riled up, flailing and dancing in an almost trance-like state.
Most bands of Os Mutantes’ stature would scowl at playing for such a small crowd, but Saturday’s headliners embraced the intimacy. The result was a performance that felt more like a house party with 50 of your closest friends. Let’s hope they return to do it again.