Country music is a divisive genre of music. Many fans tell those who do not respect the genre that they have not heard the best that country has to offer, and that they can still be taught to appreciate the ways of Zac Brown and Tim McGraw. Hard-line fans say that pop country has ruined the genre and that one must pay no attention to the artists that seem to sing only about trucks, girls and ice-cold beers. Whatever someone’s opinion may be concerning the authenticity of country music and its subgenres, one thing is certain—the “Brazilian Bluegrass” of Matuto is a sound worth exploring. Composed of four talented musicians from around the world, Matuto presents an international sound that is not only influenced by the global experience of the group, but also shaped by it. The members of Matuto have traveled around the world as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department and have done an incredible job of incorporating their travels into their music. They managed to combine their distinct Latin sound with traditional African rhythms in their song “Ivory Coast,” a track written during their tour in Africa. The waltz they played toward the end of their first performance at BPAC, “Midnight Sun,” was composed during their time in the Arctic reaches of northern Canada.
Matuto opened with a clean, refined sound. The group set the tone for the night with a Latin groove and some surprise jazz fills and basslines, though it was difficult to observe any chemistry between the members early in the performance.
The audience came to expect a diverse program for the night when the group played an unrecorded original track titled “Lean On You Now,” a love song that was in stark contrast to its first chart of the night. However, the tune was rather unimpressive and revealed the limitations of the singing abilities of lead vocalist Clay Ross. His vocal skills are not as well-refined as his guitar skills and felt secondary to the instrumentals of each chart throughout the performance.
The band seemed to find its rhythm during the third chart of the night. After Ross had reminded the audience that they were welcome to get up and dance, many were moving in their seat to a much livelier Latin rhythm that featured improvised solos jazz fans very much appreciated. The chemistry between the members of the quartet went from invisible to almost tangible, and it was demonstrated especially well by the alternating solos between accordionist Rob Curto and Ross on guitar during a later track.
Matuto went on to present a very engaging performance. The audience became a part of the performance by counting downbeats, clapping and chanting with Ross on cue, and assisting in the singing of “Happy Birthday” to Curto, whose wish was that the audience have a good time during the show. Most would agree that his wish came true.
A defining trait of Matuto’s music is its storytelling ability. Ross introduced a solo accordion piece from Curto by stating, “Rob is going to tell you a story.” The narrative Curto told began as an elegant melody that quickly livened up and ended with a strong climax.
Before playing “Forró Pacifico,” Ross invited the audience on an adventure. The journey that followed began as a slow-paced accordion feature before developing into a cool, hip-hop inspired track that showed another side of Matuto.
“Forró Pacifico” also featured the standout solo of the night, from bassist and Rio de Janeiro native Itaiguara Brandão. Not only did he demonstrate stellar communication with the band, but he played a very spacious solo, a nice contrast to the fast-moving melody of the track that brought a Latin groove that was already breaking the mold in the 21st century.
The solos of the other members in the group throughout the performance always fit in very well with the tone of each chart, though each of them could have been more adventurous with their improvisation. More ambitious solos would have been especially appreciated from drummer Aynsley Powell, whose technical abilities are very well-refined but left something to be desired after he finished his features.
The defining chart of the night was “The Way I Love You,” a track described by Ross as a “Brazilian bluegrass classic.” It featured traditional bluegrass lyrics and melodies over a lively Brazilian-inspired beat and fast-moving accordion lines that once again had audience members moving in their seats.
Ross informed the audience that every time they played a different song, some crowd members should form a conga line. Sure enough, as soon as the downbeat of “Sun Song” hit, some people in the audience got up and began making their way around the recital hall in a small but noble conga line.
The night ended with more crowd participation on a South African-inspired track that reminded the audience why the music of Matuto was made for the dance floor. It was at this point that a few audience members finally rose up from their seats and started dancing.
Matuto proved to be a unique, experienced and exciting group of musicians. If all country music was as well built for dancing as “Brazilian bluegrass” was, perhaps more people would appreciate it.