Brazilian band leader and keyboardist Sergio Mendes has been a regular visitor to the Hollywood Bowl, undoubtedly because he’s the perfect addition to any summer lineup you could possibly conceive. Those haunting and lovely compositions by A.C. Jobim, Baden Powell, Gilberto Gil et al are a natural fit for Southern California, where you’re always somewhere between the beach and the desert, and “Agua De Beber” should always be close at hand. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of his breakout group Brasil 66, he remains a master, and this show was one of his most satisfying in recent memory.
Part of the reason was the set list, which was heavy with songs from those classic Brasil 66 albums. While it’s admirable that he’s tried to keep up with the times and made forays into hip-hop and pop balladry without embarrassing himself, it was really a treat to hear the songs of his best period given the spotlight for an entire set. Tonight, the rapping was limited to the set-closing “Mas Que Nada” (we were waiting to see how long it would take for H20 to rhyme “Sergio”, “piano” and “Hollywood Booowl!” and sure enough, after chorus three, there it was.)
Instead we got gorgeous, faithful renditions of “Berimbau”, “Roda”, “Ela Un Carioca”, “Promessa de Pescador”, “The Look Of Love” and a spectacular “Waters Of March”, and their bossa nova covers of “Think I’m Going Out Of My Head” and “The Fool On The Hill”. His usual band, including his wife Gracinha Leporace alongside Katie Hopkins on vocals, was appended by the LA Phil, conducted by Thomas Wilkins, adding subtle shading to the arrangements without overwhelming the singers.
A night filled with great moments, maybe the best of all were those with his special guests. Singer Dianne Reeves’ appearance early in the set marked a reunion of its own, as she was briefly a member of Mendes’ touring band in 1981. She and guitarist Romero Lubambo joined the band for an incredible “Like A Lover”, one of the first high points of the set.
Later, Herb Alpert and Lani Hall took the stage to an unbelievably warm reception, and basically blew the house down. Hall was the original lead singer of Brasil 66, and it was Alpert who signed Mendes to his label and took his band on tour, eventually falling in love with, and marrying, Hall. There is an intimacy and familiarity between them that is visible from a distance, and stage banter like “Thank you for introducing me to my hot boyfriend, Sergio!” It’s all very cute.
Fifty years later, they still play “Upa Neguinho” and “One Note Samba” (with its momentary “sample” of the Tijuana Brass’ “Spanish Flea” inserted – an early indication of Sergio’s hip-hop leanings?) with impressive virtuosity and spirit. If we want to talk about performers who set the bar high for performing into their seventies, we need to consider these people. Herb Alpert’s playing is recognizable within three notes. Hall has undiminished, perfect flow and tone. Mendes plays as well as he ever did. It was ten minutes of something close to perfection.
The joy of the gathering was not lost on Sergio, who thanked the crowd passionately and repeatedly proclaimed the Bowl his favorite venue on earth. “I wish I could do this gig every night of my life!” I have to admit, a world with nightly gigs of this caliber sounds like a nice world.