Roots radicals: Thievery Corporation returns to the Santa Barbara Bowl with a bossa nova evening

Rob Garza, left, and Eric Hilton are the duo that make up Thievery Corporation, spinning bossa nova beats and vocals with a twist.
Rob Garza, left, and Eric Hilton are the duo that make up Thievery Corporation, spinning bossa nova beats and vocals with a twist.

Just a few weeks after the Eighteenth Street Lounge club opened in Washington D.C., Rob Garza walked through its doors to the sounds of “¡guas de MarÁo” by Antonio Carlos Jobim coming from the DJ booth, and he knew he had found his new home. He also found the lounge’s co-owner Eric Hilton, whom he would soon team up with to DJ and make music under the moniker Thievery Corporation. On their new album “Saudade” (released in April on ESL Music, the duo’s label), they return to the bossa nova rhythms of their early days and have produced what is for the band a very straight-ahead album filled with songs. They’ll be bringing this new work and their dub-heavy back catalog to the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday.

“We feel this album is a kind of palate-cleanser before our next sonic expedition,” Mr. Garza says. “It started with me and Eric in the studio trying to make a few songs in this genre and then at one point we thought, ‘Why don’t we just make a whole record that goes back to our bossa nova and Brazilian influences?’

Deciding to put aside their usual eclecticism had benefits, said Mr. Garza.

“When you have a direction and a goal, it’s easier to get there,” he says, coming from a duo that prefers to just hit the studio and see what happens. “It made it more focused in terms of what we were trying to accomplish. This record is more organic, more feminine.”

They brought in five female vocalists to croon over their smooth retro rhythms, including Loulou Ghelichkhani , who’s been with the band since 2000’s “The Mirror Conspiracy.” (When they first discovered Ms. Ghelichkhani, she was a barista at one of their regular coffee spots. Now she’s got a career.) The other singers are Elin Melgarejo, Natalia Clavier, Shana Halligan, and Karina Zeviani, all doing their best to channel Astrud Gilberto, Gal Costa, Elis Regina and other famous bossa nova singers from the ’60s and ’70s.

The band is bringing two of those singers on tour this time, and they’ll expand more on the sound of the album, which also brings in Ennio Morricone soundtracks and French late ’60s cool as influences.

“In the studio you’re trying to be very intricate and focused, and live it’s about creating a connection with the audience,” Mr. Garza says. “That includes stage presence and personality. We try to keep that electronic foundation in our music, but we both grew up on live music, so we want to bring that organic nature to the live concert.”

Amazingly, the band is coming up on their 20th anniversary, not just of Thievery Corporation, but the aforementioned Lounge that really became the East Coast center for the neo-lounge/downtempo genre.

Do they plan to celebrate their 20 years in a big way?

“We should do something, that’s not a bad idea,” says Mr. Garza, who then laughs. “I haven’t even thought about it. Usually we don’t think about that stuff until it’s actually happened, and then we’re like, man, we should have done something!”

But for both the club and Thievery Corporation to last this long is rare in music and the bar scene.

“Everything has changed,” he says. “It’s a different world. We were selling CDs back then! But it was exciting at that time, because we were helping create a genre along with these other artists.

“What’s helped us continue is that me and Eric just love music and creating music and we both feel blessed that we can have a career doing this. We don’t take it for granted.”

Thievery Corporation
When: 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Santa Barbara Bowl, 1122 N. Milpas St.
Cost: $25-$55
Information: (805) 962-7411, www.sbbowl.com

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