By Jon Pareles
Two stars of the tropicalia movement, which revolutionized Brazilian pop, performed at Town Hall this week: Gilberto Gil on Tuesday night, on a double bill with David Byrne, and Rita Lee on Wednesday night. In the 1960's, their iconoclasm and cosmopolitan ambition marked them as troublemakers; Mr. Gil was imprisoned and exiled by Brazil's military government, and Ms. Lee's band, Os Mutantes, were threatened and censored. They outlasted their opponents, and Mr. Gil was appointed Brazil's minister of culture in 2002.
His concert at Town Hall involved his official role as well as his previous jobs: songwriter, singer, bandleader and rubber-legged dancer. The concert was a benefit, sponsored by Wired Magazine, for Creative Commons, which has devised a new copyright license that lets creators permit their work to be freely shared on the Internet and sampled and reused by others.
Mr. Gil has promoted the license in Brazil; Mr. Byrne has also released some of his music under the license, and as the concert's finale they sang "Don't Fence Me In." For both of them, the license is a digital-era ratification of what they have always done as musicians, listening widely and stirring together what they hear. One of Mr. Gil's songs, a mythic account of rock's genesis, was called "Chuck Berry Fields Forever."
Early tropicalia was a brash psychedelic jumble of old and new Brazilian music with imported rock and assorted noise, and since the 1970's Mr. Gil and Ms. Lee have taken different directions. Mr. Gil's set on Tuesday night was a rhythm-happy montage of Brazilian music, rock and the African diaspora; he sang about legends, history and ideals. His band members had electric and acoustic versions of their instruments, including an accordion for a keyboard, and they were used in limber, stripped-down arrangements. The band loped through its own hybrids of Brazilian samba, maracatÀu and forrÀo, along with Argentine tango, Jamaican reggae and a gently Brazilianized "Imagine". With Mr. Gil's earthy voice riding the band's airborne grooves, he easily made the case that ideas are happiest when they mingle.
Ms. Lee's music since Os Mutantes has shifted toward smoother, more straightforward rock and pop songs that have been hits in Brazil. At Town Hall, an adoring crowd sang whole verses of songs on cue. If the lyrics hadn't been in Portuguese, many of her songs would have sounded at home on a lite-rock playlist. Her voice is a knowing, smoky alto, and the songs she writes - often with her band's guitarist, Roberto Carvalho - present a woman who's self-confident, sensual and by no means diffident. In "Amor y Sexo," she sang, "Love is a bossa nova/Sex is Carnaval,'' then shimmied like a samba dancer.
She was full of sly surprises, playing assorted instruments - guitar, slide whistle, flute, theremin - and doing a werewolf howl in "Doce Vampiro" ("Sweet Vampire"). And she put on a clown nose and moved like a marionette to sing Os Mutantes' "Panis et Circenses," a song by Caetano Veloso and Mr. Gil about an uncaring older generation. The tropicalia musicans are now an older generation themselves, but they haven't lost their irreverence.