From being homeless in a Rio favela to playing concert halls worldwide via acting in movies such as City of God and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, Seu Jorge’s ascent to success makes the mind boggle like your cranium housed a particularly popular late 80s lettered dice game.
Correctly pronounced “Say-Ooo Zhor-Zhee” in a voice that sounds like you’ve just been to the dentist, Seu Jorge, or Mr. George em inglês, casually strolls onstage with Almaz, the collaborative cover band he recently formed with guitarist Lucio Maia and drummer Pupillo from Nação Zumbi and bassist Antonio Pinto. The group fuse samba, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll in reinterpreting a number of traditional Brazilian standards and hit songs from around the globe. Jorge is no stranger to covers himself, having single-handedly soundtracked The Life Aquatic by singing acoustic versions of David Bowie songs entirely in Portuguese, which, truth be told, are pretty amazing.
Usually pictured with a bedraggled beard and a haystack of long thin dreads, the Seu Jorge at the show tonight is wearing his hair short and sensible with an unusually kempt goatee. He’s swapped his Steve Zissou-approved nautical uniform for a pair of impenetrably dark sunglasses, a loose black v-neck t-shirt with a white print of a man toting guns and bullets with the words “Favela Made” stamped above, baggy jeans, and some incredibly comfy-looking bright red neoprene slip-on shoes.
The band start the evening’s proceedings in a low gear as Jorge picks up a flute and the slow rattling groove and haunting melody of “Errare Humanum Est” (a Jorge Ben song from his 1974 experimental album A Tábua de Esmeralda) gently waft out of the speakers. Loosely gripping the mic with oodles of looped cord in one hand like he’s about to eat a baby octopus, the man is as laidback as a broken deckchair and his unmistakably ragged baritone is as weathered and as comfortable as a pair of old jeans. Seu Jorge’s lazy emblematic voice is what sets him apart; pained, strained and joyfully indifferent, it sounds like the slow drag of a bow across a cello that’s just been thrown down a flight of stairs.
The atmosphere at the King Cat Theater tonight however is anything but sullen. The concert suddenly jump-starts into life as the samba swing of Noriel Vielal’s “Saudosa Bahia” gets the largely Brazilian crowd moving and Seu playfully saunters around the stage, hamming it up like a lounge singer at the Sao Paulo Ramada as whoops and yelps emanate from the clearly appreciative audience. Lackadaisical yet expressive to the point of mimes worldwide fearing for their jobs, he regularly complements his sung words by confidently nodding his head as if he’s just declared a sentence of irrefutable truth or exaggeratedly shrugging his shoulders in resignation as if to say, “I guess that’s the way life goes.” A torrent of Portuguese follows the song, the only word I understand being “Seattle”, but the crowd roar their assent as if he’d just offered to buy us all a drink and pay off everyone’s mortgage.
A funky distorted bassline then ushers in Tim Maia’s “Christina” and Jorge continues to dance to his own unique choreography, shuffling his feet and shoulders sideways like an intoxicated penguin and throwing ironic Elvis-like poses at the end of his lines. By this point the sound of the audience resembles that of a soccer stadium as he hops and grooves around the stage, jumping in front of the drum-kit and crashing cymbals with his palm and even playing air guitar with his mic cord. Nelson Cavaquinho’s meandering “Juizo Final” follows, opening with a drum pattern identical to Edwin Starr’s “Runnin’” beat (which Air craftily sampled for “La Femme D’Argent”). After bouncing to their rejig of ‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk, Almaz then play a lethargically energetic version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock With You’ in which the percussionist keeps time by tapping a beer bottle and the crowd join in to sing “Alll Niiiight” as one in the chorus without even being asked. The show continues to gain momentum as Seu croons his way through imaginative covers of “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie, “Girl You Move Me” by 70s psychedelic French funkers Cane and Able, and Jorge Ben’s landmark hit “Chica Da Silva.”
The encore features “Carolina,” arguably Seu Jorge’s best known song, and after more humorous posturing and dancing so gracefully unpolished you’d swear he was wearing a pair of rusty roller skates, the evening’s music draws to a close. We leave into the cool Belltown night, fully expecting to be hit by a blast of Rio’s balmy beach air as we walk out the door.
High: The frankly superb rework of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” by Roy Ayers, where Jorge sings the line “bees and things and flowers” in a gravelly bass that’s both jubilant and mournful at the same time like only he can.
Low: Not having a Rosetta Stone bilingual microchip implanted in my brain to understand Seu Jorge’s rousing speeches in Portuguese in between songs which leave the audience so impassioned I half suspect that he just announced his intention to run for president.
In a Tweet: Bowie, MJ and Brazilian music giants get sambafied by pleasantly nonchalant and unrefined bass rumble that has all ten of your toes dancing.
Were you there? What was your highlight? Your favorite song of the evening? Are you able to write a full and complete transcription in English of everything Seu Jorge said in Portuguese? Let KEXP know in the Comments section below!