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Bebel Gilberto's living room

The singer's winning stage style turns the audience into one big family at Avalon.

September 10, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Seven songs into her seductive set Saturday at Avalon Hollywood, Brazilian singer-songwriter Bebel Gilberto eased herself into a Space Age stool made of clear acrylic. She sat sideways in the chair, putting her feet up on some sound equipment, leaning back and letting her flowing, curly hair cascade over the other side. The lights dimmed, and for a moment it seemed like she was just taking a breather from her lively, often festive performance.

Instead, she slipped into an intimate rendition of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," one of seven songs (half her set) she performed from her latest album, "Momento," her third domestic studio release since 2000. She sang the first few lines with her head turned away from the audience and facing her musicians, giving the impression we were eavesdropping on a casual, after-hours moment with the band.

The staging wasn't just a gimmick. Gilberto delivered a version of the American standard far superior to the one on her CD. The quality of the live version showed how much Gilberto has grown as a performer, with a winning stage style that's warm and folksy but also sensual and sophisticated.

For 15 years, the daughter of bossa nova legend João Gilberto has labored to find an independent voice that would distinguish her from her artistic pedigree, which also includes famous uncle Chico Buarque.

Born in New York and raised in Brazil, Bebel (short for Isabel) draws heavily from bossa nova and samba but has dabbled in electronica and other modern dance styles, with uneven results both on record and in past performances.

Nothing seemed forced about Saturday's show. Gilberto performed with such natural charm and authentic friendliness that she turned the Hollywood club into her living room, somehow making a big family out of an audience that was part Brazilian immigrants and part hipster listeners of public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9), a concert sponsor.

There was never any doubt that Gilberto can sing, and she did so beautifully with the soothing, sultry approach that's the hallmark of jazz-tinged bossa nova, occasionally flexing her power and range on upbeat numbers. She also showed a genuine affection and appreciation for her five-piece band, including Japanese guitarist Masa Shimizu and saxophonist/flutist Jorge Continentino.

Harnessing energy, whether live or in the studio, is not a problem for the members of her band, who perform separately as Forro in the Dark, a New York-based outfit that specializes in the rousing rural music of northeastern Brazil called forró (pronounced foh-hoh). They opened the show with a blast of percussive excitement featuring folkloric instruments such as the zabumba, a bass drum (which gives its name to a Westside restaurant) played by Mauro Refosco.

The band -- positioned in a line across the front of the stage -- also featured Continentino on rustic wooden flutes called pifanos, Guilherme Monteiro on acoustic guitar and Davi Vieira stirring up a one-man hurricane of rhythms on a tall, slender drum resembling a Cuban conga. Shimizu sat in on electric bass.

The music of Forro in the Dark shares the infectious dance drive of salsa, the happy melodies of cumbia, the celebratory abandon of samba and the undulating grooves of reggae, mixed with a multicultural, urban sensibility. Luckily, much of that joyous spirit is captured on the band's recent CD, "Bonfires of São João," featuring the regular six-man lineup and guest vocals by Gilberto and world music guru David Byrne.


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