Gilberto Gil cool and collected in Vancouver

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      At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, April 12

      I confess to having spent the first four numbers of Gilberto Gil’s concert wanting to be somewhere else—like a small foreign club where the warmth of the Brazilian icon’s acoustic music would instantly bring the room to life.

      Instead, the Chan Centre felt huge, the four musicians looking small and strangely distant from each other in their respective pools of light. The mood felt low-key. After Gil ambled on-stage smiling, he sat down and tuned the strings of his guitar without saying a word. It wasn’t until four samba songs into the show that he addressed the sold-out crowd.

      He then talked at some length about a meeting with an Aboriginal elder in Australia—an engaging anecdote, but was Gil going to stop the flow of the music like this all evening? But the cool-and-collected approach was part of the evening’s game plan for one of the music world’s most sophisticated and respected artists. Gil’s show proved a subtle and perfectly paced demonstration of how to lead an audience from expectation through uncertainty into a collective state of euphoria over the course of 24 songs.

      Accompanied by his multi-instrumentalist son Bem, accordionist Erivaldo Oliveira, and percussionist Domenico Lancellotti, Gil played intelligently on the emotions of the fans. In the first half of the generously long evening, he performed songs from his most recent album, Gilbertos Sambas, a homage to his friend and inspiration, bossa nova creator João Gilberto. There was also a collection of bright new compositions by Gil, such as “Um Abraço No João”. But in the second set Gil and company shifted gears and spread out, and the temperature rose sharply as they drew on some of the classics of the Brazilian popular-music songbook.

      A startling new interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado” (“Off-Key”) featured Gil’s laid-back and understated vocals over a spare percussive texture of light brushes on the drums. This was followed by a slowly rising electronic wail—like a boiling kettle’s whistle—that ended in a big off-key buzz. Gil was having fun as the musicians loosened up—Oliveira’s huge hair bobbed fascinatingly to every little rhythmic dart and shift in his solos, and he and Lancellotti communicated ideas closely though separated by some eight metres.

      When Gil and the band returned for an encore, they played three more classic songs: João Gilberto’s “É Luxo Só” and “Eu Vim da Bahia”, followed by Gil’s own sun-drenched “Aquele Abraço”. The emotional mercury reached its peak, leaving the audience standing in disbelief at the sly, transformational game of a grand master of the performing arts.