Friday, 5 August 2011

Live Review: Pink Martini (June 25th, 2011)

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.

A brief intermission followed, and as I returned to my seat, some patrons around me expressed worries that Pink Martini – the band they had come, and paid good money, to see – would only be playing for an hour at most. ("Do you realize we have been here for an hour and a half already?" one woman asked me.) However, all thoughts of time were soon driven from our minds as pianist-bandleader Thomas Lauderdale came on stage and announced he had some 'bad' news and some 'great' news: the 'bad' news was that lead singer China Forbes was taking half a year off to undergo some surgery on her vocal cords, and the 'great' news was that someone named Lucy Woodward had taken her place, having learned a fair bit of their music in an astonishingly short three days.

Whatever one's reaction to the announcement may have been, it forced the rest of the ten-piece ensemble to truly show their mettle as a band, kicking off proceedings with a stunning riff on Ravel's Bolero and showcasing their abilities throughout the concert with dazzling solos and a hypnotic rendition of Mozart's violin concerto in G-major. Lucy Woodward emerged on stage after Bolero, immediately showing her vocal abilities on a sultry version of "Amado Mio" and, despite having never sung in a foreign language prior to her preparations for the tour, sailed through the Japanese "Song of the Black Lizard" and the Croatian "U Plavu Zoru" with surprising ease. Admittedly, many of the foreign-language songs Woodward had to tackle were largely instrumental in nature, and as the concert progressed, it became clear that – apart from a sizzling take on "Lilly" from 2004's Hang on Little Tomato – she wasn't going to dare tackling material that Forbes herself had written or co-written.

"Someone complained that we didn't do our French song last night [in Calgary]," Lauderdale mentioned three-quarters of the way through the concert, referring to the band's breakout hit "Sympathique" (a Lauderdale/Forbes production) and perhaps in acknowledgement of the evening's evident lack of Forbes material. "Lucy can't do it because French is hard, so would anyone from the audience like to come up here and sing it?" To everyone's surprise (including, most likely, her own), a young woman named Kyla gamely stepped on stage and knocked the song out of the park, earning a standing ovation afterwards.

"Wow," Lauderdale said. "How do you top that?" Having conferred with several patrons in my row that, the absence of Forbes aside, for the band not to play fan favorite "Hey Eugene!" would be criminal, I began to loudly shout "HEY EU-GENE! HEY EU-GENE!" – which soon became simplified to "EU-GENE! EU-GENE!" as it spread down my row and across part of the theatre. Most of the chanting died down after a minute or two, however, but I kept shouting on; Hey Eugene! was not one of my favorite albums of last decade for nothing, and up to that point nothing whatsoever from that album had been played.

In a moment, that was about to change.

"Who is that gentleman calling so enthusiastically from the audience?" Lauderdale asked, and I eagerly stood up.

Great, I thought, maybe he'll dedicate the song to me or something.

"You want it, you sing it," Lauderdale said, with what looked like a grin spread across his face. Still in the heat of the moment, I said to myself Okay! and made my way down my row to the door at its end, calling out "I'll be right there!" and bolting through my portal door to the door marked Portal 1.

Once I had hopped up on stage, Lauderdale handed me a microphone and sat down at his piano, the band immediately launching into "Hey Eugene!" and I imitating China's scatting in the opening. To understand why a man singing this song (particularly in a bass-baritone voice) in a pseudo-cabaret style would be so funny, here's a video of China singing the song and explaining its origins:

Once I had made my way through the first verse (complete with finger-parenthesis, as demonstrated in the photo below, for "you weren't that drunk"), someone in the band shouted "Higher register!" and I immediately complied, only returning to the lower register when it seemed funny to do so (particularly on "And then we kissed"). I even played with the audience a little, raising my hand to my ear as if to say "Louder!" as they did the echoes on the chorus. None of this was pre-meditated, mind you; it was all totally, gloriously, spur-of-the-moment.
Lauderdale on left, I singing "You weren't that drunk" on right.
With "Does anyone of this ring a bell, Eugene?" I took a bow, was embraced by Lauderdale (who, grinning, said "That was awesome!") and rushed back to my seat just in time for "Let's Never Stop Falling in Love" and set closer "Brazil". Most of the audience stood – and remained standing – for the latter's duration, clapping in time with the music.

As the lights went up and the band disappeared from stage, I was immediately congratulated by a whole host of people, most of whom I had never met. Terry MacLeod of CBC Radio 1's Information Radio told me he had just tweeted about my performance, and a volunteer with the Jazz Winnipeg Festival informed me had my performance captured on his phone. (That video has yet to emerge, but even if it never does, I still have the memories.)

The random congratulating continued as I moved out to the lobby, where I ran into Kyla. We enthused about the band and about our shared experience, were asked by some to sign their copies of Splendor in the Grass, and confirmed for multiple people that, yes, that portion of the evening had been entirely spontaneous. ("I thought only one person [China] could sing that song, seeing as it's her personal experience," someone told me, but now there're two!")

Needless to say, the evening had turned out to be far more noteworthy than I had ever expected.

All photos in this entry taken by Nick Friesen of Uptown Magazine.

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