I have been a fan of Maria Rita (see Keeping it in the family) ever since heard her first CD being played in a restaurant during one of my trips to Brazil a couple of years ago. I didn't recognise the singer or any of the songs but I was impressed with her, the material and the band so asked the waiter what the music was. He went and fetched me the CD cover to read. I made a note of the details and was subsequently able to purchase a copy before returning to England. Thus began my enthusiasm for Maria Rita, who made her UK debut at the London Barbican last Saturday night.
I arrived early at the venue accompanied by my wife, my daughter and my grandson and stopped off at the bar before we took our seats. As is so often the case at London gigs by Brazilian musicians, the predominant language that we heard was Portuguese: London has a large Brazilian community these days and a visit from a top artist always produces a big turn out. This generally makes for a great atmosphere but the downside is that even when the artist is a fluent English speaker, there is a tendency for the audience to request - somewhat vociferously - that announcements are made in their native language. Some - such as Gilberto Gil - are seasoned enough performers that they resist this and make sure that those who only speak English are catered for. Maria Rita proved to be not quite in this category.
The band took to the stage and sorted themselves out, then Ms Rita, clad in a midriff-exposing, split-skirt ensemble, emerged to rapturous applause and sailed into the first number. It quickly became apparent that the mix was not right, and although the band were obviously playing their socks off and the singer was giving her all to the performance, the mix just got worse as the concert went on. I glanced up at the mixing desk several times (we were sitting a few rows in front of it) but was somewhat surprised to see no sign of dissatisfaction on the face of the sound engineer. On the contrary, he looked very relaxed and happy, despite the fact that the percussion was drowning out almost everything else. Every now and then he would seem to become aware of an imbalance but made the fundamental error of continually raising the volume of the other instruments and the voice, rather than bringing the offending instrument's levels down. As the evening went on this 'volume chasing' continued as the engineer, having turned everything else up to the point where the percussionists were not so prominent in the mix, then decided that their levels needed to be brought up more and so ad infinitum until distortion began to set in...
I'm sure that the actual performance was great: they were musicians of a very high calibre and Maria Rita is a damn fine singer who was obviously giving her all to a rapturous crowd, who in turn were on their feet dancing within a very short time and greeting each song with a howl of recognition. They seemed to enjoy it all despite the sound quality and the atmosphere was generally fairly joyous. Alas, I could not share the enthusiasm, much as I wanted to. I'm happy that everyone had a good time - a fact confirmed by the repeated encores that led to the repetition of some of the set as they had obviously run out of rehearsed material - but for me sheer atmosphere was not enough. I wanted to hear what the individual instruments were playing. It was a seven piece band - piano, bass, drums, cavaquinho, seven string guitar and two percussionists. The pianist was the excellent Jota Moraes, who I know from his great work with the group Cama Da Gato (of whom more in another posting) but you would never have known.
No, on the whole it was a great disappointment but I point the finger solely at the sound engineer. I have seen DVDs of several live performances and I would still urge you to check out Maria Rita if you get the chance. Try this for a start. There's lots more where this came from!