Seu Jorge’s David Bowie Tribute Brings Samba Heat and Sauvé Chills to Hollywood Bowl

In the Lusophone world, Rio de Janeiro’s own Seu Jorge is one of the biggest MPB (música popular brasileira) artists and is considered a key proponent of the Brazilian samba revival. A smoky, dynamic voice, which blends rumbling lows with Wilson Pickett-esque belting, has led him to chart success starting with 2001’s “Samba Esporte Fino.” also known as “Carolina.” He quickly parlayed his charismatic smile and urbane yet elegant coolness into a film career that saw him star in 2002’s “City of God” (“Cidade de Deus”) and a dozen more big screen roles over the past decade and a half. He’s basically the Brazilian Lenny Kravitz.

To the Western world, however, he is mainly known and beloved for playing Pelé dos Santos in Wes Anderson’s 2004 comedy-drama “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” where the character’s Portuguese-sung renditions of David Bowie classics provided most of the flick’s musical backdrop. Since the passing of The Thin White Duke, followed only a few days later by the passing of Jorge’s father, the Brazilian singer has taken his acoustic Bowie re-imaginings on the road for “The Life Aquatic: A Tribute to David Bowie.” He brought the tribute to the Hollywood Bowl on June 25, featuring new orchestral arrangements by David Campbell performed by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra with Thomas Wilkins conducting.

Jorge opened with a set of samba originals featuring his backing band, giving him a chance to showcase his riveting originals and fiery vocals over funky Latin rhythms. The frontman’s talent was on full display whether he was strumming an acoustic guitar, delivering jazzy flute solos, or simply singing his heart out. He’s not exactly the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and perhaps a bit reserved on stage, which might make audiences feel like he’s holding back. Yet when he gets lost in the rapid-fire trills of a song like “Carolina,” his eyes roll back in his head and only the whites show beneath his fluttering eyelids, making him look like a man possessed – and it becomes all too clear to audiences that he’s committing a soul sacrifice with each powerhouse wail.

For his second set, Jorge trades his debonair blazer (featuring a half-buttoned shirt) for the recognizable robin’s egg tracksuit and red beanie from “Life Aquatic,” the first of many changes. Our searing soulman is reborn as a laidback, tea-sipping crooner capable of giving you chills at a moment’s notice with his Bowie covers or making you laugh with his on-set stories. It’s a wholly different mood that’s just as captivating, thanks to Jorge’s brilliance as a performer.

Standouts include his bossa nova spin on “Rebel, Rebel,” where he uses Bowie’s “do-do-do, doot-do, do-do-do” to stand in for the rousing guitar riff. An orchestrally-enhanced take on “Life on Mars” begins when Jorge’s deep vocals send a shiver through the audience, backed with the delicate nylon-string twang of his finger picking. Campbell’s achingly beautiful arrangement (built off the original Mick Ronson string parts) takes over toward the song’s end, building to an overflowing cornucopia of harps and brass during the tune’s climax.  But even on the similarly stunning adaptations of “Space Oddity” and “Five Years,” it is Jorge’s stirring vocals that are heard the loudest, sure to reach the souls of all within listening distance.

In fact, his gorgeous voice is the only thing that made this whole cockamamie idea work in the first place, preventing what could have easily become a director’s lame gimmick. And, on the stage of one of the world’s most famous amphitheaters, it’s Jorge’s voice that transcends language barriers and gives crowds something truly special. From the second he takes the stage, you can see that he’s not there to fulfill your expectations or even necessarily to entertain you; he’s merely a conduit for the beautiful music flowing through him. And if you’re lucky enough to witness it, you’ll definitely leave satisfied.

Seu Jorge‘s “The Life Aquatic: A Tribute to David Bowie” took the stage at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl June 25.