Brazilian singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento didn’t need any of his celebrated American guest collaborators to help him sell out the Wiltern Theater Saturday night; his local audience remains deep and utterly devoted. And he won them over again with another heady dose of his unclassifiable blend of Brazilian and North American sounds.
Nascimento’s following here goes back to 1969 with the release of his brilliant, haunting American debut LP, “Courage” (A&M). Since then, Nascimento became a cosmopolitan, assimilating rock influences while digging deeper into the Brazilian interior for rhythms, timbres and social issues such as preserving the rain forests. His recent albums, including the February release “Angelus” (Warner Bros.), have gravitated back toward Brazil, assisted by a galaxy of guests like Peter Gabriel, Wayne Shorter, James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Jon Anderson and Pat Metheny.
None of these luminaries turned up onstage Saturday (Shorter was in the audience but did not perform), yet Nascimento’s quiet charisma and solid, punching Brazilian backup band easily carried the evening. It was a typical Nascimento performance — a spare yet dramatic intro, the headliner with his trademark cap, riveted to his stool behind his guitar, waving his arms expressively like a fighter and a cheerleader. His voice remains a virile, sustaining life force, communicating even to those who do not understand Portuguese — and frequently, he doesn’t even need words, getting the message through with his patented, soaring, wordless vocalises.
Much recent material was spotlighted, often in tougher, more rock-leaning arrangements than those heard on the albums, meandering serpent-like through complex changes of texture, harmony and pace. The highlight for this unreconstructed Nascimento follower was a revisit to “Vera Cruz,” one of his earliest, most striking songs, still riding comfortably on a flying carpet of tense Brazilian rhythm. And the backup band ably handled the English counter-lyrics on James Taylor’s “Only a Dream in Rio” from the new album.
The sometimes antic all-female quintet Zap Mama opened the evening with a bracing blast of rhythmic, hypnotic, a cappella vocals.