Timeless in Message, Performance and Spirit | Os Mutantes Live at Hotel Vegas, SXSW 2023


Os Mutantes live at SXSW 2023. Photo by Matt Cruz, WDBM.

Matt Cruz, Media Librarian

Politics have been intrinsically intertwined with music since the advent of the modern age. As music became more accessible, and protesting increasingly became a valid form of rebellion across the globe, sending messages became far more dynamic than the pamphlets, speeches and organizations of old.

For most Americans, you might think immediately of punk — a complete rejection of the music establishment in the 1970s. The introduction of raw, manic guitar with aggressive and off-kilter singing allowed its subversive and challenging messages to resonate much stronger and burn white hot. In the United States, our status as the unofficial “leader of the world” meant that, comparatively, our society, leadership and economy were stable enough for many forms of protest music to only be needed in localized doses — never a reactionary occurrence that permeated pop culture on a national level. Brazil, on the other hand, used music to directly defy and oppose a military dictatorship. 

Tropicalia was a music genre that began in the late 1960s and flourished alongside the fascist rule of Brazil, butting heads of right-wing ideals and independent left-wing expression simultaneously. 

Os Mutantes is one of Brazil’s most important and innovative bands, credited with being one of the most influential rock bands in the country and one of the de facto faces of the Tropicalia movement alongside Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Tom Zé.

This March, The Impact had the special opportunity to attend SXSW, and for myself, Os Mutantes was one of the few must-see acts.

All current members of Os Mutantes gathered on stage, thanking the crowd for their attendance. Portuguese rang out from the crowd, likely with messages of adoration from journalists, attendees and foreign nationals excited to see one of Brazil’s foremost musical acts. Frontman Sergio Dias wore a great smile on his face, beaming into the crowd like a ray of sunlight. This overwhelming sense of gratitude and happiness was a far cry from other feelings of exhaustion and frustration that other performers would express on stage.

Os Mutantes live at SXSW 2023. Photo by Matt Cruz, WDBM.

Os Mutantes rapturously opened with one of their most popular songs, “Fuga n° II.” From 1969’s Mutantes,Fuga n° II” is characteristically drenched in reverb and near-operatic delivery from Esméria Bulgari, who joined the band in 2013. While Dias, the only original member of Os Mutantes, is well into his 70s, it would be foolish to mistake age for frailty. The opening track was played with perfect precision, each bell chime and percussive highlight replicated from the original recording in perfect sync. 

As nostalgia of their golden age dissipated, they looked toward newer material, playing “Time & Space” from Fool Metal Jack. The vintage synths and live instrumentation reinvigorated a meddling track off a recent album with a hypnotic, raw and psychedelic energy. The 10 minutes of sound check carefully done by Dias improved the sloppy mixing that made much of Fool Metal Jack a toothless listen. The heaviness in the synth was no longer squelched in the mix, finally able to hang over the musicians like a dense fog. The plucked guitars and electric guitar were tastefully nestled under the synth, but not shrouded in a maelstrom of noise. The grotesquely clean palette that made Zzyzx and Fool Metal Jack permeate with anticlimax was nowhere to be seen — a wonderful production choice that turned an otherwise paper tiger into a lean, stalking beast of the night.

Dias and company continued their trudge through their back catalog, pulling out a recent, but still deep cut from their archival effort Technicolor, “Virginia.” The psychedelic and strained guitar allowed one of Os Mutantes’ most surreal cuts to come completely alive. The bright and shimmering guitarwork added a sense of vibrancy that the original track lacks — a wonderful and palatable alternative for an unfamiliar audience. While years of instrumental workshopping and touring has allowed them to adapt their sound to a more pop-centric approach, it is still wonderful to hear the trailblazing palettes that made Tropicalia such an important movement retained in their performance.

“Dois mil e um” followed, chock-full of the energy and group interplay that made Mutantes such a joyous romp. The modern instrumentation and glowing synths reinvigorated the track with a contemporary psychedelic palette. The heaviness of the programming allowed the original psychedelic rock instrumentation to flourish, creating a pearlescent jetstream that was equally crushing as it was blissful.

Well into the night, Os Mutantes hadn’t even broken a sweat. Dias was in top form throughout, and while well into his 70s, he is quite clearly as capable a performer as he was during the initial rise of Tropicalia. While performing Os Mutantes’ more technical songs, Dias played complex solos with deceiving ease. His eyes would close and he would lift the neck of his guitar toward the sky, slowly submitting to the groove and entrancing the crowd in a pure musical spectacle.

It seems that giving the crowd an unforgettable experience was paramount to Os Mutantes, as the second half of the night’s set was filled with some of their most acclaimed tracks. They pulled from their golden age again with “A Minha Menina.” Os Mutantes would acknowledge another crowd favorite: their last true tropicalia album, Jardim Electrico, with the track of the same name. The fractured guitar sounded otherworldly, accompanied by an endless groove of percussion and sludge-like bass. The track’s manic sense of dynamism and yelped vocals were on full display. They played patiently, carefully wrapping a sense of passion and attention in a melodious gift to the audience. 

Os Mutantes live at SXSW 2023. Photo by Matt Cruz, WDBM.

Winding down the show, Dias took a seat to the tune of “Balada do Louco,” easily one of Os Mutantes’ most emotionally hard-hitting and sere tracks. Dias’ voice has aged, but the honesty and grit in his voice still displayed the tenderness on the original recording with a well-traveled wisdom. The heavy synth work present on the original recording was overtaken by guitar leads and percussion, allowing Dias’ voice to truly shine and grow with the backing soundscape rather than combat for its attention.

As the night slowly drew to a close, Os Mutantes prepared the last of their material. After standing in a state of complete wonder for the past hour, I reached a state of complete ascension with “Ando Meio Desligado,” the opening track from Os Mutantes’ magnum opus, A Divina Comédia Ou Ando Meio Desligado. Bulgari did a wonderful rendition reminiscent of Rita Lee. Her booming, soulful voice invigorated the track with an infernal sense of fun, retaining the playful yet gothic atmosphere that made it so dynamic and memorable.

Os Mutantes stood up, thanked the crowd and left the stage. Exclamations of adoration and love in drunken Portuguese were shouted from the crowd, with eager listeners having just been serenaded by one of Brazil’s most important bands and one of psychedelia’s foremost innovators.

What a spectacular night. 

To the naysayers who may contest the authenticity of 2023’s Os Mutantes: You could opine that their current incarnation is merely Sergio Dias, but, while that is correct in context to their original lineup, Dias is certainly doing their back catalog justice.

Despite recent musical efforts proving the progressive rot, if not “flanderization” of Os Mutantes’ trailblazing production, Dias is nonetheless keeping the spirit/message of Os Mutantes and Tropicalia alive for a new generation: a young, freethinking, cosmopolitan and “Tropicalia” new generation.