ONLY IN NEW YORK
'60s Brazilian psych-rock legends Os Mutantes and "Mr. Las Vegas," Wayne Newton, have a lot more in common than you might think. Actually, they don't, but last week they were both in town for rare NYC appearances -- Newton's first gig here in almost twenty years, and Os Mutantes' first-ever Stateside performance -- and I am one of the few New Yorkers who can claim to have seen them both.
Os Mutantes' crowd was a mix of indie hipsters and, well, aging indie hipsters, with a light sprinkling of Brazilians. While the band was huge in Brazil during its '60s heyday, they were virtually unknown in North America before artists like Beck and David Byrne started championing them in the '90s, by which time they'd been broken up for 25 years. So it was with a slight sense of disbelief that we saw them take the stage at Webster Hall, like ghosts suddenly materialized. And when they started to play, the crowd was blown away -- even without original vocalist Rita Lee (replaced by Zelia Duncan), it was as if they'd never been away. The band was able to effortlessly recreate the sound of their records onstage, with their odd, quirky, samba and bossa nova-laced pop combined with spurts of prog rock and Santana-like soloing from guitarist/vocalist Sergio Dias Baptista. All of it was punctuated with the pungent smell of the pot being smoked by a good chunk of the crowd.
Time, alas, has not been as kind to Wayne Newton, whose formerly silky, pubescent voice has been ravaged by the years and the desert air of Las Vegas. The phrasing is still there, as are the attitude and the moves, but now when he opens his mouth, he sounds like he's inhaled some helium and stuffed a sock in his nose.
But Wayne Newton's never really been a singer. He's an entertainer first and foremost, and for the 100 or so minutes he strode the boards of B.B. King's, he kept us entertained -- especially the helmet-haired old women who'd come by the truckload to worship at the altar of Mr. Las Vegas. "Oi saw ya at the Copa when you was just a kid!" "Oi love ya, Wayne!" "Come down heah, gimme a kiss!" He received the adulation with studied professionalism, even stopping the show for a few seconds to pose for a picture with one of his more ardent fans, but stopped short of playing tongue hockey with any of his geriatric admirers.
I expected at least a smattering of ironic hipsters in the crowd, but when the band played the intro to the Oscar-winning "It's Hard Up Here For A Pimp," the gasps of horror far outweighed the cheers. It was one of the better moments of the show -- my favorite, hands-down, was one I've heard he's been doing every show for decades, when he motions to the piano player and says, "Remember that song I told you not to rehearse because we weren't gonna play it? Well, we're gonna play it. Ah one, two, one-two-three-four!..."
The rest of the show was a blend of bad comedy, vaudeville, and the occasional song, and the crowd ate it up, thrilled to merely be in the great man's presence. As was I. I'm not sure if it's worth traveling to Vegas to see him, but the next time he's in town, I'd jump at the opportunity. Let's just hope it's not another 20 years, because even now he looks like a very well preserved Egyptian mummy with a strange wig. I can only imagine how he'll look in 2026.