After the Deluge
Caetano Veloso's Late Late Show
Like many 60s artists, Caetano Veloso burst out with a heroic period of work in an intense, short period of time. From 1968 to 1972, he released five studio albums (three of them simply called Caetano Veloso) and several collaborations that established a new, avant-garde approach to popular song drawing on European surrealism and Brazilian anthropophagy - an attitude dubbed tropicalismo.
And then he got famous.
“After the sixties, the seventies seemed to me rather insipid,” Caetano writes in his 2002 memoir, Tropical Truth. “I didn’t like David Bowie or progressive rock, Woody Allen or the new German films; I held no brief for Weather Report or for Earth, Wind, and Fire. Only in Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, and some punk music did I discover encouraging novelties coming from the Anglophone world. I found the fashions (the clothes, the hair, the dances) ugly and square, schematic representations of what had been daring in the sixties.”
This is from the final chapter of Caetano’s memoir, following some three hundred pages covering the period up through the recording of his great experimental failure Araça Azul in 1972. (“The public reaction was unequivocal: the album broke all records for refunds requested.”) He then compresses the next thirty years of his career, 1972-2002, into less than a dozen pages.
Still, as Caetano well knows, “The majority of the songs for which I am known nowadays were composed and recorded since Araça Azul.” It was in those insipid 70s and 80s that he became a mainstream star in Brazil and therefore the world.
Which explains a bit how Naomi and I arrived on tour in Brazil the same year Caetano was completing his memoir, 2002, burning with enthusiasm about tropicalia in general and Caetano’s early albums in particular and even a version of the title track “Araça Azul” in our set, only to be met with amused disbelief by hipster journalists and radio djs. Caetano is our grandparents’ music, they explained. Of course they were thinking about the Caetano covered by those last dozen pages of memoir. Brazil is supremely cool, but not everyone’s grandparents are actual tropicalistas - you have to figure they might at best be schematic representations of what had been daring in the sixties.
That makes Caetano’s output in the 21st century all the more remarkable. After decades of highly successful, grandparent-pleasing records, Caetano found something daring again – not the alienating tropicalismo of his youth, to be sure. But perhaps a mature version.
For me, late-period Caetano begins with a standout live album released in 1999, Omaggio a Federico e Giulietta. It’s an unlikely place to begin a career transformation: a one-off performance in honor of Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina at a theater in San Marino – the tiny, marooned republic a half-hour drive from Fellini’s native Rimini. Caetano had come all that way for one show, and with a specially prepared band and setlist, by invitation of Fellini’s sister Maddalena.
Caetano’s liner notes to Omaggio a Federico e Giulietta are as intimate and revealing as anything in his memoir. In them he writes that the invitation from Fellini’s sister made him “ecstatic” – he arrived in Rimini suffering from vocal trouble, but nevertheless in such a high state of excitement that despite the cold and damp of the place in late October, he was “filled with an overwhelming emotion. An emotion that included sadness, and exalted pride, and a diffuse fear linked to the meaning of my life.”
The musicians he brought also radiated a very particular feeling – led by cellist Jacques Morelenbaum, the small combo (just guitar, bass and drums in addition to cello) function more like a chamber ensemble than vocal accompaniment. Deliberately drawing on the feel of Nino Rota’s music for Fellini, and with a setlist ranging from Irving Berlin to Neapolitan song to classic bossa nova, woven together with reinterpretations of Caetano’s own compositions, the elegant arrangements live up to the exalted pride of the singer. “The show we had prepared was approaching a magical atmosphere,” he writes. “The level of inspiration in the musicians was very touching and astonishing to me. They seemed beatific.”
In this heightened state, despite what he insists again and again in the notes was a miserable vocal condition, Caetano delivered a risky, emotional, truly stellar performance. The CD documents it all except, he says, the long monologues improvised between songs. “I felt so emotional and so imbued with a sense of the importance of the event that sometimes I talked for as many as nine minutes between one song and the next. In bad Italian and with a shaky throat.” If the live recording didn’t prove the elegance of this music, its mastery of tone and nuance, the liner notes might lead you to imagine it was a manic mess. Maybe it was both. It is one of my favorite live recordings ever. But it wasn’t the smooth show of a seasoned professional that much of San Marino might have been expecting. It was an excited performance that can thrill, but also put off an audience who hasn’t come to hear nine minutes of talk before every tune.
Caetano’s albums ever since have had a similarly unhinged quality - gone are the decades of grandparent-pleasing success that fail to rank pages in a memoir. There was an album of American cover songs (A Foreign Sound, 2004), mostly classics but also with what seemed then like a left-field choice of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” arranged by his son Moreno Veloso and the equally young Pedro Sá. Was the track a favor to the two young musicians? A prank? In the artwork, among a pastiche of quotations by various sure hands (Sinatra, Miles Davis, Dylan) Caetano included one of his own that seemed to disavow the Cobain song even as he presented it: “Ivan Lins is music; Nirvana is rubbish.” Just a few words, but the effect is not unlike a nine-minute monologue in Italian between songs. You look at the person next to you, saying with your eyes: Is he ok?
Caetano’s next three albums seemed to take their cue specifically from that Nirvana cover, of all things. Cê (2006) was entirely produced by Pedro Sá and Moreno Veloso, this time with original songs by Caetano but strictly performed by a “rock band” trio of Pedro Sá on electric guitar and a rhythm section of even younger musicians, Ricardo Dias Gomes and Marcelo Callado. This sound divided his fans, yet Zii e Zie (2009) and Abraçaço (2012) continued the theme, with variations - all played by this rock band a good thirty years younger than their front man.
Thirty years… the same gap between Araça Azul (recorded, neatly, the year both Moreno and Pedro Sá were born) and the 2002 memoir that compressed those three decades of success into twelve pages. Were these albums a thirty-year mulligan? A do-over? I don’t love the three rock band records, they feel a bit strained to me and have never quite shed their aura of a midlife crisis. But they kept me listening - indeed, each has increased my interest in the others, as it became clear they were less a novelty and more like a rambling nine-minute speech on stage.
The latest of Caetano’s 21st century albums, 2021’s Meu Coco, leaves the rock format behind (to my relief), but still draws on young talent – it was recorded at home during the pandemic with engineering help only from 25 year-old Lucas Nuñes, a bandmate of Caetano’s even younger son Tom. This time the arrangements vary much more widely, with contributions from rising songwriter Thiago Amud, veteran horn player Letieres Leite (who has since died from COVID-19, sadly), and old friend cellist Jacques Morelenbaum. Pedro Sá and Moreno Veloso make appearances, as does Morelenbaum’s daughter Dora. Yet here the guest spot with the brightest light is Carminho, a thirty-something Portuguese singer who duets with Caetano on thrillingly equal terms in “Você-Você.” She is clearly in the midst of her schematic decades, with a vocal touch ripe for mainstream recognition. And the song, peppered with names of Lusophone heroes from both sides of the Atlantic, is like an happy-sad union of samba and fado.
Still, for me it’s an arrangement by Jacques Morelenbaum that steals the show, and connects back to the beatific tribute to Fellini and Guilietta Masina that launched these oddball albums. “Ciclâmen do Libano” is a fleshy hymn, a late addition to the Song of Songs that Morelenbaum embellishes with string arabesques. It’s scored but syncopated, as if Fairuz came to Ipanema - complete with orchestra – and sat in at a local bar. I’m moved to hit repeat every time it ends, but try and let the album play on because it is all so excellent.
I don’t know if these albums of Caetano’s own sixties and seventies can compete fairly with his groundbreaking albums of the 1960s and 70s. But their daring join together across the decades of his more popular work. And I am pretty sure my enthusiasm for some of them might be met again with disbelief by hipster radio djs in Sao Paulo. Those are records by a grandparent, they might say. And our grandparents don’t even like them!
Listening to: songs in Portuguese
Cooking: cocoa almond cake