For those us who, at the urging of famous musicians with good taste and friends who knew something about Brazilian music, embraced Os Mutantes not only decades after they recorded their great albums but also years after they were wrapped up in an impenetrable mystique, elusiveness is an essential part of the band’s identity. This has a lot to do with their history (LSD abuse, refusal to get back together, and so on), but it has a lot more to do with the actual sounds on their albums. They sound remote: guitar parts bounce across vast mountain ranges, voices echo forth from underwater caves.
Os Mutantes’s mode of experimentation was in some ways more radical than the approaches adopted by most of their British and American contemporaries. They used the possibilities afforded by electric instruments and studio technology not to take pop to its furthest limits but to exploit the artifice at its core. The albums they recorded in the late sixties and early seventies sound like messages from the past, documents in a state of suspended disintegration.
Os Mutantes’s mythical status was partially predicated on the band’s unwillingness to reunite. Thus, Live at the Barbican Theatre 2006 threatens to puncture their mysteriousness, but it also gives us a chance to find out what they sound like up close. And, actually, they sound pretty great throughout the two discs of this live recording.
A reunion concert can be a sad affair, a lackluster exercise demonstrating only that the past is the past. This is not one of those cases. Judged on its own merits, it is an amazingly enthusiastic showing, executed with forcefulness and aplomb. The highlights are the beautifully mellow rendition of Caetano Veloso’s “Baby” and the joyfully raucous “Bat Macumba” (featuring guest appearances by Noah Georgeson and — you knew he was bound to show up — Devendra Banhart). They more than nail all the parts; the playing on this recording sounds downright slick, and the singing is more confident and precise than ever. All of which, of course, is impressive and makes for good listening. But it’s still kind of a bummer.
Good musicianship never hurt anybody, and Os Mutants were awesomely versatile and sensitive as players, singers, and arrangers from the beginning, but professionalism is not exactly what you go to them for. It’s easy to get excited listening to this album and it’s just as easy to feel that it just isn’t Os Mutantes. And it really isn’t. Rita Lee is missing from the lineup, replaced by Zelia Duncan. Her absence, however, does not explain what’s wrong here, which has more to do with a lack of what made Os Mutantes special in the first place. They weren’t a good band because they had good songs; they were a good band because of the way they made those songs sound on record.