It was understandable when Gilberto Gil momentarily forgot what town he was in a week ago Thursday. “It’s good to be here,” he said from the stage of the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, “in . . . the Boston area.” On previous stops the tour had been to Carnegie Hall. And everyone knows how you get to Carnegie Hall. But how do you get to the Zeiterion? Still, it’s hard to imagine a better setting for the generous show that followed — a two-hour solo performance by one of Brazil’s greatest singer-songwriters, in a 1920s vaudeville house at the heart of Lusophone Massachusetts packed with a knowledgeable crowd who were hushed when Gil wanted to sing quietly and raucous when he asked them to sing along.
Accompanying himself with a nylon-string guitar, Gil was relaxed and happy on his first solo tour ever. Lately, he’s scaled back his musical activities for the sake of public service. Once an enemy of the Brazilian state (he and his comrade in cultural agitation, Caetano Veloso, were exiled by the military dictatorship of the late ’60s), he now serves as Minister of Culture in President Lula da Silva’s socialist government. So he’s had to put aside songwriting. “Songwriting takes so much concentration,” he sighed.
He played many of his own samba and pop classics: “Aquele abraço,” “Expresso 2222,” “Palco.” He paid tribute to the Beatles (“When I’m 64” reimagined as bossa nova), Agustín Lara (“Farolito”), and Bob Marley (“Three Little Birds” as well as Gil’s hit version of “No Woman No Cry,” which the crowd sang along to in Portuguese). His affinity for McCartney melodies resurfaced when he playfully whistled “Penny Lane” over one of his own sambas.
On guitar, Gil glided from subtle bossa nova to a ferocious rhythmic strum. His voice operated in three distinct ranges: a high, thin, near-falsetto that he used for yelps and onomatopœic cries as well as some of his most ornate melodies; a baritone that crooned simpler tunes, prettily, in an almost Nat King Cole manner; a low, close-to-the-mic tone that he used for somber and at times chilling effects. When near the end he gave a shout-out to New Bedford, working the town into a lyric alongside Bahia and Luanda, the statesman and the showman combined into one.