Rodrigo Amarante de Castro Neves hits sweet spot at World Café Live

Brazil's Rodrigo Amarante de Castro Neves conveyed the striking emotional qualities of Portuguese in concert Tuesday at World Cafe Live.
Brazil's Rodrigo Amarante de Castro Neves conveyed the striking emotional qualities of Portuguese in concert Tuesday at World Cafe Live.
Posted: July 04, 2014

Brazilian singer-songwriter and guitarist Rodrigo Amarante de Castro Neves gave a richly soothing concert Tuesday night at World Cafe Live. It was just the right thing at the right time for some of us - namely, those who've been in a virtual Brazil for the last three weeks, absorbed by the World Cup, televised from locales across the vast South American nation.

What made the concert hit such a sweet spot? The Rio de Janeiro native, 37, didn't overdo the futebol references. He was a genuine, nuanced manifestation of Brazilian culture, as opposed to all that hot sun, beachy fun, and giddy soccer-crowd imagery TV has been serving up.

More than that, Amarante's 14 beautifully rendered, often melancholy songs - one in French, five in English, the rest in Portuguese - offered a tuneful tonic for those of us smarting from the elimination of Team USA by Belgium a few hours earlier.

Nobody does achy (if cathartic) sadness better than Lusophones, whether via fado music from Portugal or bossa nova from its largest former colony. (The bearded Amarante tends toward the latter on his debut album, Cavalo, released in May.)

Whether backed by his modern indie-rock MPB ( Música Popular Brasileira) three-piece combo (drums, bass, keyboards) or solo on his small, finger-picked cavaquinho-like guitar, he repeatedly brought forth deep feeling from his poetic compositions, close to the mike, effortlessly expressive.

Amarante even began "Irene," a lush standout number, with the Portuguese word saudade, a largely untranslatable term meaning love-lost, longing, wistfully nostalgic - a word perhaps preeminent in the language's uniquely emotional vocabulary.

"This is a song about leaving things behind," he explained before delicately crooning the lyrics in the sliding, gently nasal tones of his first tongue. It was fascinating to hear the singer get the same wistful lilt on English tunes such as "I'm Ready" and the engaging "Fall Asleep."

Six years after coming to America, he has refined his English vocals until they have virtually no foreign inflection, contrasting with (though sometimes melodically akin to) the way Astrud Gilberto famously cooed in heavily accented English about "The Girl From Ipanema" 50 years ago.

Amarante picked up an electric guitar for a few tunes, including the exuberant "Maná" (about his sister Marcela, not the namesake blowhard mainstream Mexican rock band), evoking the Brazilian samba-rock synthesis of late '60s and early '70s tropicália acts like Novos Baianos or Os Mutantes. This was the Rodrigo Amarante some may remember from his Philadelphia debut last year, as a member of pal Devendra Banhart's band at Union Transfer (Amarante also opened there).

What American music fans may not know is how huge Amarante is in Brazil, with a career starting in the '90s and achieving prominence with the popular band Los Hermanos. He also has led his self-described "1950s casino big-band" Orquestra Imperial (he did a solo read of their "Pode Ser" in Philly) and done collaborations with top stars including Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, and Marisa Monte.

Amarante encored with "Evaporar," another sublime solo version of a song from yet another of his bands: Little Joy, the excellent L.A.-based unit he formed in 2007 with Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti and Binky Shapiro. (Final fun fact: Moretti sings chorus parts on Amarante's Cavalo, as does, on a few tracks, the drummer's on-again, off-again girlfriend, actress Kristen Wiig.)

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