ALL SMILES "I'm riding the same wave," says Os Mutantes leader Sergio Dias (third from right), "but this time I have my eyes open."
When Sérgio Dias takes to the Somerville Theatre stage this Sunday with the current incarnation of Os Mutantes, it's a safe bet he'll be beaming with gratitude. "I'm riding the same wave," he says of his band's legendary Brazilian albums, "but this time I have my eyes open."
Guitarist and singer Dias is one of the three core members of the original Tropicália group — the one who has always soldiered on in the face of betrayal, defections, and madness. Last month saw the release of Haih Or Amortecedor, the first album of original material credited to Os Mutantes since 1974, and Dias is in the middle of an international tour to introduce it to his fans along with live renditions of the old cult classics.
Watching Dias on stage, all smiles and showmanship, is not unlike witnessing the most recent, satisfying tours by Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney: it's not quite the Beach Boys or the Beatles, but the gusto with which these men lead their touring bands into powerful live renditions of elaborate studio tracks from a crazier time is certainly contagious.
Like McCartney, Dias has always been the crowd pleaser — he's the vaudevillian Mutante. Much of the magic of the original trio that propelled Brazilian rock into outer space in 1968 owed to the alchemy created out of Dias's cheerful pep, his brother Arnaldo Baptista's lysergic intensity, and the mercurial singing of the mesmerizing Rita Lee.
By the mid 1970s, however, the Mutantes dream seemed to be over. Lee had left in 1972 to pursue a solo career, and Baptista's mental problems and psychedelic explorations would force him out of the limelight for good.
In the 1990s, international interest in Os Mutantes was prompted by the endorsements of David Byrne, Kurt Cobain, and Beck, as well as by sporadic reissues of their seminal first three albums. Dias watched this in amazement from his São Paulo home. "Our back catalogue belongs to Universal," he explains. "We don't have too much control. We're like a chair to them. A thing they sell."
But in 2006, European and American promoters persuaded Dias and Baptista to bring Os Mutantes' music on stage for an event at London's Barbican. Things snowballed from there. "When we said yes to the Barbican," explains Dias, "then we had the American tour set up, without playing a note."
A year later, the reloaded Mutantes played for an audience of 80,000 in São Paulo. Tropicália philosopher Tom Zé was there, and Dias was amazed that he could actually talk to him. "In the '60s I was a kid, and he was such an intellectual!" The two started collaborating on material that ended up on Haih, along with other songs written with Afro-Brazilian legend Jorge Ben.
Fortunately, the outfit that recorded Haih and is currently touring behind it does not try merely to impersonate the Lee-Baptista-Dias line-up. Dias has gathered a trusty group of younger musicians to flesh out the complex, playful arrangements that embody the Mutantes brand. Sassy vocalist Bia Mendes even brings a Broadway flair to the new material and the old Rita Lee parts.