Tropicalistas Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil’s show at the Hammersmith Apollo was one of a short international series celebrating an extraordinary musical friendship whose combined 100 years had an enormous impact in defining Brazilian popular music. That London is one of the chosen dates should also have special significance, as it was their chosen destination for exile in 1971, after being incarcerated during Brazil’s brutal dictatorship.
The show has a somewhat circular format: it begins with songs from the pair’s early albums, as such a welcome Coração Vagabundo from Veloso’s Bossa Nova-situated 1967 debut, and eventually returns to more or less the same place with Tropicalia-era favourites like Domingo No Parque and Alegría Alegría. Material in-between is mostly drawn from their classic 1970s albums, peppered with more dilettante moments from their Spanish and Italian repertoire. The period of their exile in London is lightly referenced tonight with Veloso’s snapshot of early 1970s Portabello Road Nine Out Of Ten and an encore of the broken-English classic London London.
Frustratingly, given the intimacy of the musical presentation, conversation is light, and opportunities to reflect on their careers, both together and apart (including the London years), is missed. Both get one shot at injecting some more recent songs and curiously both opt for numbers that deal with ageing and mortality. Without his band, Veloso’s Odeio (from Cê) struggles to find its power, but Gil’s sparse mostly unaccompanied Não Tenho Medo Da Morte (I Have No Fear of Death) tears through the blanket of nostalgia to emerge as one of the evening’s unexpected triumphs.
The less musically forthright of the two, the first part of the set is mostly given over to Veloso, which is probably the right strategy. One of the difficulties of presenting the pair together is that as a musician, Veloso is never going to be able keep up with Gil, and is clearly aware of it. One of the most self-assured musicians to have ever strolled across the planet, by the mid 1970s, Gil had already pretty much explored the outer limits of what it was possible to do musically and has sat back on his laurels somewhat ever since. Veloso, in contrast, while rather musically shaky by himself, has volumes to give as a songwriter later in life, evidenced by the crisp, modern trilogy of his last three band-accompanied studio albums Cê, Zii E Zie and Abraçaco.
In a stripped down, two-men-and-their-guitars performance this counts for little, though, and in the latter part of the set, where Gil beings to takes over with his own repertoire, Veloso is frequently left redundant on his stool. While Gil casually galvanizes the crowd with an electrifying Toda Menina Baiana, all Veloso can do is sit and watch. When Andar Com Fé follows, he finally shifts off the stool to shimmy invitingly and animate the audience in a clap-along, but the effect by this point is more cheerleader Rosie to Gil’s dominant Sophia Grace.
It is also noticeable that while their careers and friendship have intertwined so meaningfully over the years, this doesn’t necessarily translate into electric musical chemistry between them. Their major collaborative projects over the years, like the Doces Barbaros supergroup project or the Tropicalia sequel from 1993, are hardly among their best work. And while their voices are different enough to provide some light and shade contrast when they swap solo songs, they don’t harmonise so well together.
Of course, none of this matters at all to the fervent, mostly Brazilian crowd here tonight who are just delighted to witness them both together on stage bathing in the glorious and resonant musical moments that litter their careers. However, there is a sense that, while their combined centenary of exemplary performing, songwriting and ideologising has more than earned them the ovations, tonight might have been given much more of a sense of occasion by considering and reflecting better on its unique context.