During the closing song “Labareda,” Virginia Rodrigues briefly demonstrated to the audience how to clap along to the song’s rhythm.
The beat was simple enough — two short, one long — but perhaps she didn’t realize that an American audience may not be so adept at providing their own “street beats” as her countrymen in Brazil. Rodrigues gave only a five-second, informal tutorial, leading to one of the most epic clap fails in recent concert memory despite more than a few audience members attempting to keep the rhythm.
Apparently a good portion of this rhythmically challenged audience understood Portuguese just fine, because they nonchalantly drowned out guitarist Alex Mesquita’s English translations of Rodrigues’ words (her only direct address to attendees in English was to conclude the show — “Thank you very mucho!”).
But none of that took away from a performance and voice that have accurately and frequently been described as celestial. Rodrigues and Mesquita began the show slowly, merging their two instruments — nylon-string guitar and voice — into stunning harmony and fusion.
Lyrics sung entirely in Portuguese and African dialects only contributed to the trance-like state the pair induced. Unable to discern literal meaning from the words, listeners instead had to focus full attention on the intonation and delivery.
With a vast range and the ability to hold and alter pitches for incredible durations, Rodrigues commanded the room with her clean, pure, and powerful voice. Her talent as a musician, however, may have shined brightest when she and Mesquita harmonized over chromatic chord changes and walks, demonstrating an intense comfort and familiarity with each other on stage. After one song, they even shared a celebratory high-five.
Although Rodrigues received the bulk of pre-show attention, Mesquita could easily have commanded his own starring role at Spoleto. Twice, Rodrigues left the stage to allow the guitarist the full spotlight. From his small-bodied instrument, Mesquita pulled ethereal sounds, including a scratching effect on his low E-string that mimicked the sensation of a berimbau, the traditional instrument of a capoeirista.
Rodrigues hails from Santiago, the capital city of Brazil’s heavily Afro-influenced Bahia state. That connection to capoeira and its energy was apparent throughout the night. At one point, through Mesquita’s brief translations, she explained that she learned samba from her grandmother “underneath a tree of mango.”
Still, a guitarist and a singer simply can’t capture the same energy that a band can. Rodrigues drew heavily from her 2004 Mares Profundos album, a release of traditional Brazilian bossa nova and folk songs that are punctuated with impeccable drum rhythms and punchy horn sections.
Unfortunately, the danceable energy of those arrangements simply can’t be duplicated by six guitar strings and a voice, however incredible the musician behind each may be (and they’re certainly not aided by hundreds of audience members stumbling through a clap-along).
Of course, that’s not what Rodrigues and Mequita were going for. The singer herself danced throughout the night, twirling and removing the shawl she wore with each song, but there was never an appropriate occasion for the audience to rise and join her. After all, they were pinned to their seats, lost in the hypnotizing effect of Rodrigues’ unplugged performance.