Tropicalia Veteran Tom Zé Tours With Post-Rockers Tortoise

At opening show, they made music with hammers, hand saws, metal pipes.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- For their tour as Brazilian tropicalia pioneer Tom

Zé's backing band, members of the instrumental post-rock group Tortoise

brought along the usual guitars, bass and xylophone. They're also toting hammers and

hand saws.

Zé and Tortoise opened their six-date mini-tour -- Zé's first-ever North

American outing -- Tuesday at the Middle East nightclub here with a performance where

everything from Zé's voice to his body to an empty bottle was part of the show.

In the 1960s, Zé helped develop tropicalia, a modernist melange of pop, jazz,

psychedelia and traditional Brazilian music that lately has been cited as an influence by

such acts as Beck, Stereolab and the Beastie Boys. The music often is combined with

political sentiments and a generous dash of humor. Zé's distinctive version of

tropicalia is augmented by found sounds such as power drills and floor sanders,

slamming doors, children's voices, toothbrushes and teeth on balloons.

He released Com Defeito de Fabricacao (Fabrication Defect) late last year as well

as a collection of that album's tracks remixed by popsters Sean Lennon, the High

Llamas, Tortoise mastermind John McEntire and others. Both discs are on Luaka Bop,

the world-music label founded by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

Tuesday's show drew a capacity crowd. Zé was backed on the small, subtly lit

stage by McEntire on drums, Doug McCombs on bass, John Herndon on xylophone and

Jeff Parker on electric guitar, miscellaneous string and percussion instruments and

vocals.

Zé confided in broken English that he had rehearsed with Tortoise for only a

week before the show, but the band followed Zé's every twist and turn, many of

which appeared to be improvised.

Though he sang conventional lyrics, too, Zé just as often used his voice to simply

make sounds, repeating single syllables, letting out yips and yelps, lamenting in the

voice of an old woman. He speaks little English and performs in Portuguese, his native

language. But at the Middle East he did so with enough expression and physicality to

leap cultural barriers with ease.

Portuguese-speaking show-goers may have had a more complete experience than their

English-speaking counterparts, as they could better comprehend Zé's

between-song banter, which frequently elicited laughs and whoops. But Zé

played to the linguistically challenged as well; through his facial expressions and body

language, he easily conveyed, for instance, that "Politicar"

(RealAudio excerpt) concerned oppression and abuse of power.

Later, Zé gave the audience a lesson in what he called "plagicombination" --

inverting a classic tune, in this case the coda from the Beatles' "Hey Jude," and changing

its tempo so that it becomes unidentifiable. " 'Hey Jude' inside out, you see?" he said,

disclosing his theft.

Zé's considerable energy belied his age (reports vary from 62 to 73). Small and

wiry, dressed in black jeans and a simple, blue open-necked shirt, Zé entertained

with his whole body. Eyes closed, he would reach toward the heavens or stroke his face

in a loving or lamenting gesture as the spirit moved him. Moments later he might leap to

touch the ceiling, do a high-stepping march or fall to the floor in a faux faint.

Zé made use of all manner of found sound, with empty bottles and newspapers

making contributions. During one song, Zé took a swig from a bottle of water and

engaged in rhythmic gargling as a counterpoint to McCombs' bass and Parker's guitar.

For a finale, Zé and the band donned hard hats, goggles, raincoats and rubber

gloves and proceeded to make sweet music by conking each other on the head with

hammers, using hand saws on metal and banging on metal pipes. Zé and

Herndon, as dueling welders, ground out sound and showered the stage with sparks.

The tour continues Friday (May 21) in Chicago, and then moves to Minneapolis on

Saturday, San Francisco on Tuesday and Los Angeles on Thursday.