Brazilian guitarist Seu Jorge brought his Life Aquatic show to the Hall on Tuesday 30 May, paying tribute to David Bowie, his father, and the victims of the Manchester attack during a moving and memorable evening.
2003: Seu Jorge was in his flat in Rio when the phone rang. “I was playing PlayStation, so I ignored it. It carried on ringing. My ex-wife said: ‘Aren’t you going to answer it, you lazy…’ – in the end she picked it up herself. She passed it to me: ‘Someone in America is making a movie and they want to know if you would play Pelé.’ I said: ‘I can’t play soccer.’ I’m Brazilian, but I was never any good, except on PlayStation.”
That ‘someone’ was Wes Anderson, and the ‘Pelé’ he wanted Seu to play was not the three-times World Cup-winner, but a maritime safety expert and guitarist in the indie filmmaker’s upcoming movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The catch: the character’s main role is as an on-screen troubadour, crooning David Bowie covers. “At the time I only knew two Bowie songs – I was a black kid from a favela, we didn’t hear rock and roll – but I fell in love with him.” The film became a cult favourite and Seu released an album of his solo, acoustic, Portuguese-language Bowie covers the following year – but he had never played them live in Europe until this night.
The compère introduces the show as ‘a concert from two artists: one in person and one in spirit” and then Seu strides on, dressed in the Team Zissou outfit of red beanie heat and ice-blue short-sleeved shirt and trousers, looking like he’s just got off the boat. The atmosphere is intimate and conversational: it’s just him and his guitar on a little square platform ringed with fairy lights that masquerade as candles, two small piles of seafaring paraphernalia either side, the songs alternating with stories about his life, his Life Aquatic and his relationship with Bowie’s music.
The highlights are legion, and there’s vast variety in Seu’s approach, which takes counter-intuition to a new level, his deep, soulful voice the only constant. Changes is sadder than Bowie’s original, though with the same cathartic sense of release. The slutty glam-rock of Suffragette City is subsumed by tenderness in a gentle, finger-picked version. Five Years is transformed from a claustrophobic, piano-led indictment of groupthink into an insistent, anthemic lament, while Space Oddity – which gets the biggest cheer of the night – would be a sing-along if we could only speak Portuguese.
Other songs are introduced with reminiscences. The bossa nova take on Rebel Rebel was improvised on the spot on the first day of filming (“There were two or three songs I hadn’t learned properly. Wes Anderson said to me: ‘We’d love to do one of your songs today, how about Rebel Rebel? And I was like ‘Haha, yes, of course… Holy s***!’ I looked up to the sky: ‘Please God, give me inspiration’, and what I came up with was this…”), Lady Stardust – which emerges as a hymn to women – was inspired by watching Cate Blanchett working relentlessly on-board the set, four months pregnant. He dedicates a show-stopping ‘Life on Mars?’ to “you, the people of Manchester, Bowie and my father” – his dad, “who made me what I am”, having passed away just three days after the Thin White Duke.
It’s a beautiful evening. Uplifting, unique, but deeply moving too: speaking very personally to the sell-out crowd, many of them sporting those iconic red beanies. “I am glad to see so many members of Zissou Team here,” says Seu. (A Team Zissou member calling Team Zissou ‘Zissou Team” is the most Team Zissou thing ever). As he leaves the stage, holding up his guitar like the spoils of battle – or as if it has done all the work – the audience rises to its feet. And then a hidden screen comes down and, when he returns for an encore, his backdrop is The Life Aquatic and you realise that though it’s only 13 years, it’s already 13 years, and that the passing of time set to music is a rhapsodically poignant thing (think of JohnnyYour text to link here… Cash’s Hurt or Terence Davies).
Seu takes the word ‘encore’ delightfully literally, performing Rebel Rebel and Oh! You Pretty Things for a second time, then closes with a lengthy, mesmerising Queen Bitch that prompts another standing ovation. He yells a final: “Thank you, London!” into the mic.
It’s been joyous and enrapturing, but with an undertow of poignancy that constantly tugs at Seu and at us. It’s been just about perfect. Thank goodness his wife picked up that phone.
All photos © Christie Goodwin