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- Posted on Sep 1st 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
"I was walking on the street and two girls and two guys were carrying signs," he says a few hours later. "One sign said, 'You're perfect.' Another said, 'You're beautiful.' And one said. 'I love you.' And I thought, 'I'm going to give the guy a hug!' I just had to."
If Dias had any doubts about this being a good time to release 'Haih ... or Amortecedor,' the first studio album since 1974 by his storied Brazilian psychedelic tropicália band Os Mutantes, they were allayed right there and then with that one embrace. It's not that the incident reminded him of the hippie heyday in which his São Paulo-originated group initially flourished in its home country. With its mix of Beatles-inspired adventurism/musicality, oddball theatrics and bossa nova colors, Os Mutantes exploded at ground zero of the tropicália movement along with such collaborators/colleagues as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. It's that this scene seemed better.
Dias recalled his first trip to L.A. in 1968, a time of great political repression in Brazil, where he strolled that same stretch of Wilshire among the throngs of unsettled youth of that era. Those recollections, though, are saddled with a lot of baggage.
"Before, it was different," he says, a cheerful host backstage at the hip L.A. club the Echoplex, where he and the revived Mutantes will be kicking off a North American tour on this evening. "Before was drugs and everything that people went through. Now there was nothing -- no drugs, no preaching. Just giving a hug in L.A. And it made me very happy."
Now, Dias seems to have a permanent glint in his eye, but the hug-boosted sparkle carried over to the stage this night in an exuberant show that was a perfect continuation of the afternoon experience. It echoed the '60s but free of that baggage.
The leader's bubbly spirit, undiminished at 57, set the tone for the show as he brought a rainbow of hues from his new, effects-enhanced guitar (which, he explained backstage, he built himself before recording the album to embody the notion of a fresh start) and shared the front vocal duties with young Bia Mendes, who even on the old material established her own role in this and never seemed a mere stand-in for original member Rita Lee. Ditto for the rest of the band establishing its own collective persona -- given that only drummer Dinho Leme, who joined in 1971, has ties to (or even memories of) Mutantes Mark I.
The rest are a younger bunch who cut their teeth on this venture in the several stages of revival that started three years ago when Dias and his co-founder, older brother Arnaldo Baptista, accepted an offer to bring Os Mutantes back to life for a concert at London's Barbican Theater. This came after years of calls for such a thing from fans including Kurt Cobain, David Byrne (whose Luaka Bop label released a compilation of the band's historic late-'60s first phase as well as a live album of the Barbican show), Beck (his 'Mutations' album is an homage) and Devendra Banhart (who joined them onstage in London).
And then there's the new material, smartly sandwiched at the Echoplex between sets of such older hits as 'A Minha Menina' (you know, the one with the cool fuzz guitar line heard in that youth soccer McDonald's ad recently) and 'Baby' (the Caetano Veloso Portuguese-English psych-bossa love song).
So here's the surprise: The new stuff actually sounded better than much of the older stuff, not that the older stuff didn't sound great, too. With lyrics largely by another veteran Brazilian eccentric, Tom Zé, and music designed by Dias to maximize the considerable talents of the current lineup, the new songs at once honor the past and speak to the present.
For a taste, listen to the studio version of the new 'Teclar,' one of the evening's and the album's many highlights. With Dias playing an Egyptian oud, the song mixes an into bit almost recalling the Who's 'Tommy" with an almost Andalusian Beatles feel. Or maybe Andalusian Kinks:
Os Mutantes, 'Teclar'
"I love that sound!" he says, apologetic that he couldn't find a way to do that live. "I tried to get an electric oud. I bought one in France, but it didn't really work. An acoustic oud is too delicate to take on tour."
In any case, phew! It was very easy, perhaps a given, to be cynical about the new music (to be released on Sept. 8 by Anti- Records, the home of Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Nick Cave, Antibalas and Busdriver, among others) and tour.
"That was the case even in Brazil," Mendes interjected backstage.
After all, the recent tours and resultant 2008 live album, spirited and accomplished as they were, were basically celebrations of the old music, even with the initial presence of Dias' brother and forcefully personable younger artists (Zélia Duncan, already established with a solo career in Brazil, was the female co-frontperson for that phase). The new album and the Echoplex concert, though, are not by any means nostalgia -- hardly anyone in the audience, a mix of young hipsters and older global music fans, would have remembered the old days of tropicália anyway. And the space-glam outfits sported by Dias and Mendes were the only overt nods to the old days.
Dias is as gratified as anyone about how it developed.
"I never thought it would be so nice," he says. "I knew we had to do a new album when we started to rehearse for the Barbican show with my brother and Zélia. But it didn't work out. Now, though, everyone here is a member. This is a real band. I made a point of not interfering with them. I would interfere if it sounded like something I'd already heard or was cliché or common in our history. But they did great music and I'm proud of what they did. We did everything we could to do something new to ourselves."
Of course, he had a long time to figure out what that might be.
"We had the collapse from all the LSD and everything in the '70s," Dias says, having chosen to work largely as a solo artist in much of the intervening years. "But it's good Os Mutantes was dormant for the '80s an '90s and more until recently -- more than 30 years. Frozen in a cryogenic state and when if came out of it, the concept is the same: Mutantes. I stopped it back then because people coming into the band didn't know what it meant to be that. So I just stopped. But the seed was replanted and started to bloom, and I'm so happy."
Does Dias see himself as the custodian of a legacy, then?
"No!" he insists. "No way! I'm a humble carrier of this standard -- basically this thing I was born under. One day I'm going to die, but who says Mutantes has to die if I'm gone? These people are a new generation and they are amazing. I don't foresee an end. I am not any paternal part in this thing. I just work hard."