The durable drawing power of Brazilian music was demonstrated again Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, where 14,293 fans packed the amphitheater for a twin bill featuring a highly touted relative newcomer and a long-established pioneer popularizer. It would have been a triple bill, but Chico Cesar had to cancel at the 11th hour (a “scheduling conflict,” we were told), so Virginia Rodrigues and Sergio Mendes were permitted to extend their sets beyond the original limits.
Rodrigues, a former manicurist and domestic from the Bahian city of Salvador, shot to prominence only four years ago thanks to the discerning ear of Caetano Veloso. In her Bowl debut, one could be thrilled one minute and puzzled the next. She is an imposing woman with a voice that is a force-of-nature phenomenon, a deep Mother Earth contralto that brings to mind an image of Odetta singing bossa nova. She had a terrific band behind her, only three musicians laying down lovely, cool, incantatory, surprisingly varied bossa nova and Bahian backdrops.
Sometimes, Rodrigues and her band could move you from head to toe, especially on “Oju Oba,” a lilting two-chord vamp on which she soared luminously out of her usual range. But then, elsewhere, she displayed almost no sense of vocal expression; her renditions of old classics like “Berimbau” and “Manha de Carnaval” were bloodless, neutral, a beautiful voice with nothing to say — and there were some gaping memory lapses in “Adeus Batucada.” The Odetta resemblance stops cold at this point, to say nothing of the other famous singers to which this naturally gifted yet unrealized Bahian has been compared.
Mendes, thankfully, has long since thrown over his long courtship of American top 40 trends (roughly from the mid-’70s through the 1980s) in favor of the Brazilian sources that originally launched him here in the ’60s. That’s not to say that he is merely recycling his old sound — not with the big, brash, electric tone of his large band, spiced now and then with battering Bahian drumming. Instead, he is forging a new continuum, retaining his usual front line of female singers, injecting new energy into the old hits, finding good new material to explore.
Along the way in the tightly paced 80-minute set, we were reminded of what a groundbreaker Mendes really was in his heyday: He introduced great Brazilian composers to North America like Edu Lobo (“Upa Neguinho”), Gilberto Gil (“Viramundo”) and Jorge Ben (“Mas Que Nada”), anticipating the world music explosion by well over a decade with his 1972 “Primal Roots” album. And he pulled off a theatrical coup with the sudden emergence of an army of wildly colorful, scantily clad dancers in the encore, “Tristeza.”