Full disclosure: I began this post with the intention of making it as objective a review as possible. As the night unfolded, however, it soon became clear that anything I wrote would have to be more of a personal reflection, for reasons that will soon become apparent.
I entered the Centennial Concert Hall on June 25th, 2011 expecting nothing more than a good performance and an enjoyable evening. I'd seen Pink Martini when they'd last come to Winnipeg three years ago, then in the more intimate Pantages Playhouse Theatre and with the lovely Meaghan Smith as opening act. This time, however, not only was their opening act local New Wave power-pop duo Ash Koley – New Wave admittedly not being the first thing I think of when listening to Pink Martini's music – but Pink Martini had recently released their fourth record, 2009's Splendor in the Grass – which, while a very good record in its own right, paled in comparison to their exceptional third album, 2007's Hey Eugene!
I was therefore concerned that the band would downplay their back catalogue in favour of their most recent – and, in my opinion, not entirely as noteworthy – release, worries that I tried to keep in the back of my mind as Ash Koley came on stage for their opening set. I'd heard Ash Koley's music on the radio and had come away not entirely impressed by the duo's pop trappings, so it greatly surprised me to see the two arrive on stage armed with nothing but a guitar and what may have been some foot pedals. Were they pursuing an entirely new direction? I wondered.
Well, as the next forty-five minutes transpired, it soon became apparent that maybe what made me so unimpressed wasn't the band itself or even their catalogue. Maybe the songs I'd been hearing on the radio were the problem instead. Songs like "Apple of My Eye" and "Brighter at Night" seemed infinitely superior, even in acoustic form, to cuts like "Don't Let Your Feet Touch Ground" that had, inexplicably, become the group's preferred radio offerings. Eponymous lead singer Ash Koley's voice had a perfect blend of velvet and pathos, with Phil Deschambault's strumming an ideal accompaniment. (The group's bare-bones setup was, in fact, indicative of an acoustic album scheduled for release in the autumn.)
Ash Koley's set surpassed all expectations, particularly on a mid-set medley of favorite songs, during which the duo's stunning take on "Here Comes the Rain Again" by the Eurythmics proved an overall highlight. A slight problem with overamplification (resulting in some concerns about blurred vocals) prevented the set from having its full impact; regardless, Ash Koley left the Concert Hall's stage with at least four thousand more fans than they had had beforehand.