One of the essential qualities of a good duet is that it manages to change the listener’s mind every 30 seconds about the best way to perform the song. You listen to the first singer and think that it can’t get any better. Then the second singer starts singing the song, completely different than the first, and then you think it’s even better. Then the first singer chimes in again, and by now you’re totally confused, in the best way possible. In the end, you decide that there is no real ideal way to sing the song.
This kind of incredible confusion was felt last Tuesday night when Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso took turns singing during a joint concert in Tel Aviv’s Menora Mivtachim Arena. Veloso’s sweet, soft voice was incredible. Then Gil chimed in with his husky, deep voice, and it got even better. Then sweet and soft came back, followed by deep and husky, until the sweet became deep and the husky became soft – and the stylistic variety of these two giants merged into one essence that presented the best of Brazilian music, in all its splendor.
They needed a few songs to get warmed up. During those first, hesitant 15 minutes, suspicions arose that the minimalist format – just Gil and Veloso with guitars, nothing else – wouldn’t let these two singers express their true greatness. Their rendition of “Tropicalia,” for example, one of Veloso’s greatest song’s, was a bland acoustic shadow of the recorded version, which is spectacular with its surging orchestral arrangements.
At first, I was worried that’s what the whole night would hold. Could it really be that Gil and Veloso’s performance wouldn’t be wonderful?
No, it didn’t turn out that way. It got great around the fifth song, and just kept getting better. The song that turned it all around, and not by accident, was the song for which Veloso put down his guitar and let Gil play alone. This act reflected one of the primary differences between the two singers. Gil is a natural musician, and the better of the two. Veloso is an incredible singer-songwriter, but his freedom lies more in his head and his heart than in his hands. Gil’s freedom comes through from his fingers, and when Veloso put down the guitar, Gil was able to freely whip his guitar with dizzying momentum, and take their performance to the level of rhythm exemplified only by Brazilian music at its best.
Their next few songs were mostly numbers belonging to Veloso, and this is when his true love of performing really shone through. His rendition of the song “Terra” included elements of singing, acting and storytelling. Actors also starred in the next song, “Nine out of ten,” from Gil and Veloso’s London period, when they were exiled from Brazil in the 1960s by the dictatorship there. “Nine out of ten movie stars make me cry” sings Veloso. When he sang this song in the early 1970s, he was exceptionally fragile and exposed. Now, 40 years later, as a 73-year-old icon, his skin is much thicker but he still channeled something from those days on the stage, even if it was just a memory of those times.
The next few songs were songs by Gil, and they began with an almost-incident. Someone, or several someones, far from the stage began shouting and disrupting the performance. Planned protest? Simple obnoxiousness? It wasn’t clear from where I was sitting. Veloso and Gil heard the shouts but kept singing, and the disruption ended. Gil then performed a string of incredible songs – the musical height of the concert, in my opinion.
The bottom line is that two singers performed great hits together, like “Toda menina Baiana,” “Expresso 2222” and “Desde que o samba e samba,” and the crowd joined in as a full participant. Veloso and Gil received a thunderous standing ovation that was well deserved.