Despite the lamentable fact that you can't dance there, some of my favorite Pink Martini performances have happened in the august confines of the Schnitz — their gigs with the Oregon Symphony (to be released next spring), the New Year's performance featuring PM pianist Thomas Lauderdale's high school choir and Portland-born 1940s-50s film star Jane Powell and conductor Norman Leyden. This night, they have a serious challenge: keeping me awake despite immoderate doses of decongestants (for my cold and sore throat) and martinis (which just seemed appropriate to the occasion and were forced upon me by friends at a New Years dinner party before this, the later of PM's two NYE concerts).
They open t he show quietly, with lights down and a lullaby, “Ninna Nanna,” from their new album, Splendor in the Grass
. The song quotes a classical piece by Hugo Alfven, one of several classical references that should make the Schnitz crowd (apparently a bit older than the typical PM audience) feel right at home. Stage right is crowded with string players, most of whom I recognize from Oregon Symphony concerts. Lauderdale has done a lot for the symphony (he serves on its board and has performed as guest piano soloist) in particular and Portland classical music in general, not least of which is employing a dozen symphony musicians to play simple chordal accompaniment at occasional PM concerts. Lauderdale seems comfortable on the symphony's home court, even while wearing a fur hat, for which diva China Forbes teases him immediately after the second song. “Can you tell we're drunk?” she asks the audience. “Just kidding — only a glass of champagne.”
In the next batch of songs, including their big hit “Sympathique,” the Eartha Kitt hit “Uskudar” and “Lily,” I again notice something that struck me at their album release show at the Crystal Ballroom a few weeks ago: Forbes's voice sounds rounder, fuller, richer than ever, especially on the low end of her range — and that's AFTER she sang a full two hour set commencing at 7 pm this evening. Maybe the hormone bombardment of her recent pregnancy is responsible, but whatever the reason, she sounds terrific.
In “Tuca Tuca,” Forbes and Lauderdale engage in a little dance that he participates in with much less abashment than he evidenced at the Crystal. That champagne must be powerful stuff. “Get up and dance,” Forbes urges the listeners as the band swings into “Lilly.” Oops — not at the Schnitz. She dedicates “Over the Valley,” the sweet little Oregon-centric ballad she co-wrote with Lauderdale for the new record, to her husband, Adam. Aww. It's good to know PM's prima donna can afford a babysitter.
Next comes “And Then You're Gone/But Now I'm Back,” the related pair of songs from the new record told from the male and female perspectives of a quarreling couple. It's introduced by Lauderdale and virtuosa Grace Fong sharing a piano bench for a more than credible four-hand duet in the Schubert piano fantasy that Lauderdale filched inspired the pair. The latter song, and others, benefit from the vocal harmonies of Portland's FourScore vocal quartet.
Other guests soon crowd the stage — a sax ensemble for a piece by the famously quirky New York character/composer Moondog (first time I've ever seen a Moondog piece live!), the gentlemen of the Pacific Youth Choir in an “Ave Maria” (splendidly performed, but not helping in my battle with the drugs and alcohol and drowsiness; a woman a few seats away is dozing); a guitarist whose name I didn't catch; Oregonian food writer Karen Brooks on xylophone. Lauderdale's solo on another instrumental show that his chops have improved, too — maybe it was all that practicing for the symphony gig last year. He's positively dynamic in the brilliantly audacious interpolation of the big theme from Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, complete with surging strings, in the midst of the new album's title track, although it'd be even more fun to see him perform it while escaping from chains and a burlap sack, as Michael Palin did in an old Monty Python skit that I can never quite erase from memory whenever I hear that music. There's so much stage chaos to manage that the ever-cuddly Lauderdale isn't able to be quite as goofily, adorably puppylike as he was at the giddy Crystal show, but, remarkably, he keeps everything moving smartly.
My torpor evaporates when the band swings into an instrumental number that sounds like it should have been performed at Benny Goodman's classic Carnegie Hall concert, complete with Charlie Christian style guitar solo, growly Ellingtonian jungle style trombone solo, several fine Gavin Bondy trumpet solos (muted and otherwise). For all the fun and retro stylings, never let it be forgotten that Pink Martini is also one smokin' band.
For the big new year's countdown — not precisely on time — more choristers crowd the stage, as does Mayor Sam Adams and members of his staff, a former Sesame Streeter, the Grant High School (Lauderdale's alma mater) Royal Blues Chamber Choir, several battalions from the Lost Brigade, much of the cast of Glee, and … and I should really lay off these decongestants. “…3,2,1 Happy new Year!” the Mayor declares. And the balloons descend.
Anticlimactically, they then play the worst song ever, “Sing,” which is probably not so bad as the insipid Carpenters version that traumatized my early childhood. Now I wish I'd taken more NyQuils, perhaps the whole bottle. But then I'd have missed one of my faves, “Hey, Eugene,” and again Forbes's pipes just sound golden, accompanied by the pops of expiring balloons. It's a cruel crowd here if you're a balloon. Then it's one of the highlights of the new disk, “Bitty Boppy Betty” (augmented again by FourScore's sterling barbershop vocals), about a politician with a secret life … wait, what happened to Sam Adams? He was there, and then he's gone.
Finally comes the closing medley, Forbes and her sister Maya's “Dosvedanya mio Bombino,” with its immortal line, “I try to storm the Kremlin of your heart.” Alas, it's medleyed with yet another childhood horror, the chorus from “The Happy Wanderer.” Unlike practically everyone else here, I cannot come join your sappy song. I can only handle so much kitsch in one concert, whether they mean it ironically or genuinely affectionately, and I'm not sure which is worse.
Now we have to pretend they've left the stage because it would take too long for what seems like several hundred musicians and their instruments to clear, and Forbes quietly launches into the first verse of their traditional encore, “Brazil.” Then, from the back entrances echoes the report of some sharp drum raps and whistles, and down the aisles marches a Brazilian samba band, presumably the Lions of Batucada, replete with flags and various percussion instruments and a whole lotta shakin' of way too much exposed flesh for a near-freezing Portland night. I'd have been more surprised if David Byrne hadn't pulled the same trick at his amazing Schnitz show earlier this year. They finished the song as all the musicians somehow made it onto the packed stage, the near sold out house shook with applause, cheers, and even some dancing in the seats. Despite the typical international postcard feel of this set, with its many languages and global beats, it felt, as always, like a true homegrown Portland event, by a band that truly loves its hometown, and definitely succeeded in scouring away my drug induced stupor. That and the equally homegrown icy Portland rain that cruelly dispelled the breezy Brazilian vibe as we emerged into a typically harsh Northwest winter's eve. Nevertheless , Pink Martini got my new year off to a warm start.