The Almadovar film, “Talk to Her” --- did you see it? If so, you cannot possibly have forgotten a musical interlude: a lanky, grey-haired singer/guitarist delivering, almost in a whisper, a ballad of exquisite beauty. That, friends, was Caetano Veloso, who is, in his native Brazil, regarded with the same reverence we reserve for John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
A few months ago, we saw Veloso play with David Byrne (once of the Talking Heads). That concert was held in Carnegie Hall, but you'd never have known --- Veloso was as relaxed as a guy practicing his putting on the living room rug. Clearly, the guy lived for the stage and found great happiness there.
Recently, we saw Veloso again, this time from the vantage point of the fourth row. Along with his band, he had a 20-piece string section, which made sense --- this tour features songs from his newest CD, a collection of English-language classics called “A Foreign Sound.” The range is vast: from Dylan to Nirvana to “Feelings” to Cole Porter. We bought the CD, listened to it a few times, and put it away; on a home stereo, it comes across as an oddity. Better to buy "The Best Of..." [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
In person, this music comes to life. In the main, Veloso treats American music as childhood songs with adult themes --- nursery rhymes with pop-culture morals that are simple as cartoons. “Love Me Tender,” for example. Elvis croons it in a lower register, as a heavy-breathing come-on. Veloso finds a range in the Neil Young zone; the song becomes a lullabye. On the other hand, he did “Dylan's “It's Alright Ma” almost at a rap cadence. And Nirvana's “Come As You Are” featured the kind of wah-wah electric guitar solo we haven't heard for…oh…at least twenty years.
Veloso takes chances. For this, he was imprisoned by a military government in Brazil in 1968 --- upon his release, he wisely fled to London. He returned to Brazil a few years later, and, ever since, has made recordings that testify to great curiosity, exquisite taste and a deep understanding of himself and his place in the culture. “Brazil is a large country, but one of the few that speaks Portugese,” he has said. “That means we are a secret. I like that.”
Veloso describes himself as “an oblique person,” but don't mistake that for a revelation. He is among the most thoughtful and premeditated performers we've ever seen, and at 62, he knows all the tricks. Tall, thin, with thick gray hair and a ready smile, he is a thrill to watch. Sitting, he sets his feet moon-walking. Standing, he's as magnetic as Bowie --- thrusting a hip, just once, during a samba, or moving his hands like a mime.
His CDs are all over the map: experiments in Latin American music sung in Spanish, Brazilian classics, his own catalogue. Start with this collection. Let him sing you his stories. You'll quickly see what he means when he says: "I make my records as a painter would paint his canvas." And then you'll start giving Caetano Veloso CDs to the people you love who haven't had the pleasure.