A quick observation from last night’s show at Balliceaux:

Matuto does lots of things well. They’ve mastered their instruments. They get the crowd going. They know more about the history of the styles they invoke than most bands ever will. They write songs that are challenging and catchy at the same time. These were the factors I knew to look for after having seen them in June.

But something struck me last night that I didn’t pick up on the first time, and it’s not even necessarily something they do. It’s more of an effect they have that’s just as exceptional as the abilities listed above. Call it affective flexibility.

I went to Balliceaux alone, so for the majority of last night’s show, I stood in one place, by the bar, tapping my feet and taking everything in. No conversation, no dancing — just ears and eyes inputting as much as possible. And as I looked around the room, I saw a whole range of reactions to Matuto’s jazzy, bluegrassy, Brazilian amalgam. Some were dancing (quite a few), some were sitting and watching intently, and some were standing off to the side, soaking things in as I was. And all this people watching got me thinking about what this music might mean to the individual onlookers… and that’s when I started inventing backstories:

I imagined that the women dancing near the front were part of a club that goes out once a month to do something culturally adventurous, and that the joy flowing through them was the result of this amazing, shared act of musical discovery.

I imagined that the couple in the booth along the wall were jazz fans, reveling in the fluidity with which Matuto blends styles and influences.

I imagined that somewhere in the room there was an Brazilian expat who hadn’t seen his country’s folk music performed live since he was a little kid.

I imagined that the guitar players in the crowd were trying desperately to track both of Clay Ross’ hands simultaneously, because as freakishly precise and varied as his note selection is, his picking hand is just as entertaining to watch.

OK, so I didn’t have to imagine that last one — that was me. And I realize this is just a thought experiment, but I have proof the band’s affective flexibility is real. When I interviewed Ross, I asked him about what it’s like being able to play so many different types of gigs, from bluegrass festivals and pub shows to educational residencies and U.S. State Department cultural exchanges. Here was his answer:

We really love all of them, and we like them all for different reasons. In a sense, they’re all the same, because it really comes down to communication. You’re communicating by giving people something to dance to, or you’re communicating by telling a story of the tour you did in Africa, or your passion for Brazilian music, or sharing something that people haven’t experienced before. From that perspective, we just go in and give 100% at everything we do.

Performing music as rich as Matuto’s is like hurling a magnificently colorful assortment of gift-wrapped boxes outward and letting the audience choose which ones it wants to open. The best part? There’s always more than enough to go around.

Click here to see if Matuto is coming to a town near you, and listen below to a cut off their self-titled album.

Matuto — “Retrato De Um Forró” [Spotify/iTunes]

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