[live review] Luisa Maita @ Johnny D's

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It’s a funny thing about live music. Where’s the added value over a recording? Sometimes it’s being in the physical presence of a hero. Sometimes what you’re seeing helps you hear — the instruments and gestures that create the sound. And sometimes it’s the thrill of being part of an audience. Certainly in pop and jazz, where just about everything comes through an amplifier and PA, you can’t beat the purity of sound and the controlled environment of recordings. (For you it’s headphones; me, I’ll listen in the car, thanks.)

At Johnny D’s, Brazilian singer-songwriter Luisa Maita, making her debut tour of the US, manifested all the comparisons between live and and on record. Her new Lero-Lero (Cumbanchan) is a smart collection of original Brazilian folk-pop, hooky, driven by all manner of samba rhythms (Maita is from São Paulo), and enhanced with bits of electronica. At Johnny D’s she made an entrance that didn’t quite fit the club. With the band playing, she entered from the bar, through the audience, moving with slow, sashaying steps and hand gestures while some of the crowd, sitting at tables, chowed on jambalaya or glazed duck or calamari. If Maiti were an established superstar, this was the cue to applaud. But no one did.

On stage, backed by acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and some electronic programming of understated rhythm tracks, she sashayed some more and sang in tight black jeans and halter top. The songs were from the album, and the grooves were (mostly) live, but something wasn’t clicking. Maybe it was a matter of not having that cooing, cool vibratoless voice right up against your ear, as it is in the recorded mix. Or maybe it was the reticence of the Johnny D’s audience, despite a few vocal partisans off stage right.

You could say that a live singer doesn’t connect when she’s singing a language not your own in this case Portuguese. But for some reason, at the fifth song, with Maita sitting down on a high stool, the music took off. It didn’t get louder, or goovier. It perhaps got more inward. On the next tune, the rhythms almost disappeared, and the third seated tune was just vocal and guitar. Maita settled into herself, made us lean forward and listen, as the tune traced an upward leap that was emotional in part because of how it was written and in part because how purely it was sung.

Having gotten over that particular hump, Maita stood again, sang “my first song in English,” a blues, and began to crest with the music (her band was outstanding). She held on and even soared for the rest of the 90-minute set, culminating in an audience flamenco clap-along. At the beginning of the set, I was wondering if it was worth hearing Maita perform such an excellent album live. Now I’m eager for her next show. Sometimes a live performance has its own kind of narrative purity.

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