Emmylou Harris, 3/18
When word filtered through the grapevine that all or most of Emmylou Harris’ longtime backing band had quit a scant few weeks before her scheduled appearance at the Lucas Theatre, all bets were off as to whether or not the show would even occur, let alone what form it would take.
However, the show did go on as planned, and – despite Harris’ repeated onstage pleas for patience with any musical kinks she felt needed to be worked out – was received rapturously by the packed house. Her move to reunite with Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalists (and sterling vocalists) Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy was prudent, as the trio have a musical chemistry which dates back to the mid-’80s. Together with a tremendously talented bassist on loan from John Prine’s band, they tore through haunting, reworked arrangements of tunes drawn from most periods of Harris’ mercurial career, and did so with great aplomb.
Soaring, ethereal vocal harmonies, evocative, delicate guitarwork, pulsing, worldbeat-influenced grooves, detours into old-fashioned a capella spirituals – this set had it all. -- Jim Reed
‘Living Legends of The Blues’
When I arrived for the second (and final) set from this amalgam of time-honored Chicago blues icons, the mood in the room was positively electric, as 92-year-old boogie-woogie piano innovator Pinetop Perkins and 70-year-old harmonicat and drummer extraordinaire Willie “Big Eyes” Smith joined veteran guitarist “Steady Rollin” Bob Margolin (all alums of the late Muddy Waters’ band) and bassist Tom “Mookie” Brill for a slab of thick, fat and nuanced down-home blues.
Pinetop’s playing and singing in particular was revelatory. While the frail elder statesman had to be helped to the stage, once seated at the piano, he came alive, clear-eyed and focused, playing and singing with the energy and control of a man three decades younger.
The sound of this lineup bore all the hallmarks of Muddy’s late ‘70s heyday on the Blue Sky label, and by the time featured frontman Nappy Brown ambled to the stage –dapper in his wide-shouldered suit and eyes ablaze with mischief– the appreciative crowd was ready for just about anything.
Brown proceeded to up the ante on his raunchy and risqué show-stopper from the previous set, teasing the audience with a septuagenarian striptease and enough double entendrés to sink a Mississippi riverboat.
By the end of the show, the Atlanta-based singer was on his back, legs splayed in the air, suspenders around his ankles – the lascivious moaning and groaning of his juke-joint days rushing back like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist. -- Jim Reed
Peru Negro & Les Ballet Africains, 3/19
In an increasingly sterilized and synthetic entertainment world where an abomination like Riverdance is considered traditional Irish music, this challenging double bill brought a powerful multi-ethnic reality check to the Lucas.
The South American ensemble Peru Negro built its act around the cabaret-meets-village-square solo performances of a hip-shaking male and female vocalist. Though technically proficient, the large troupe of young and attractive dancers they accompanied gave off a healthy amateur glow, confident and clearly delighted to be performing.
As for Les Ballet Africains, a Guinean group which came on after the break, they were quite simply one of the most amazing things – not performances, but things – I’ve ever experienced. Accompanying the exuberant troupe of dancers was a line of drummers in the wing, authentically costumed and playing authentic African percussion.
There were no songs per se; rather, the drums kept up a constant, complex polyrhythm that ebbed and flowed with the dancers. Only after the various time signatures had a chance to settle into the audience’s overcoached Western ears could the unique beauty of true African drumming be appreciated.
Just when you thought the drummers would keel over, for the finale they joined the dancers onstage and competed to see who could do the best backflips. -- Jim Morekis
Andre Watts with ASO, 3/19
Once the regular venue of the Savannah Symphony, the Johnny Mercer Theatre has not regularly hosted an orchestra since 2003. The Atlanta Symphony may have looked to some local orchestra lovers like a sudden downpour in the desert. A crowd of about 1800 gathered, and Festival Director Rob Gibson shared that he had grown up in Atlanta listening to the very orchestra we were about to hear.
A polished performance of the Rossini Overture favored clean articulation over the break-neck tempos typically heard in this work. The staccatos of the Allegro con brio dolce sections sounded sweet, witty and clear whether in the hands of woodwinds or brass.
When André Watts appeared, the crowd broke out into the applause reserved for artists of merit, longevity and reliability. Similar applause came immediately after the first movement of the Rachmaninoff; the audience simply couldn’t hold back. No wonder; Watts played with dash and sensitivity, emphasizing parts you may see in the written music but hardly ever hear, such as the first movement’s descending motifs in the left hand.
Several audience members left after the first portion of the program. They missed a dramatic performance of the Seventh Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. If anyone was disappointed by the moderate tempo of the Rossini, they were amply repaid by the final Allegro con brio of the Beethoven: read “Presto.” -- Ted Seaman
ATC Finals, 3/24
Truly the hottest single ticket at the Festival, with an everybody-who’s-anybody crowd dressed to the nines, this event is Savannah’s version of American Idol -- except with way better singing, of course.
While some may question why the only male in a field of six finalists (expanded from the scheduled five because the judges couldn’t narrow it down at the semifinals) ended up besting five females, if you actually heard winner Vale Rideout’s performance you’d question no more.
With a beautifully piercing, old-school tenor, Rideout’s three numbers included an impassioned “Maria” from West Side Story and a hilarious and perfectly timed novelty number called “Bargaining,” in which Rideout sang two characters engaged in the age-old art of haggling.
Savannah’s own Kylie Watson -- now living in New York and stunning in a black evening dress -- almost seemed happier for Rideout’s win than for her own second-place finish. The first to congratulate him, she stayed by his side as he accepted kudos from the crowd.
Third-place finisher Kathy Wagner departed from the light opera styles of Rideout and Watson, opting for a more casual and engaging club-style take, including a rousing version of Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in the Night,” a Savannah favorite if there ever was one. -- Jim Morekis
Emerson String Quartet, 3/24
Some performances are so crisp, quiet and dear that one can’t even bear to move a muscle for fear of spooking the players or ruining the moment. Such was this almost hallucinatory recital by the six-time Grammy Award-winning group many deem the world’s foremost in their field.
In truth, the hardwood flooring of the Telfair Museum of Art’s Rotunda creaks ever so slightly, and one could actually see people steel themselves whenever they had to shift in their seats or –heaven forbid– take a step or two. Still, despite such minor intrusions, attendees were treated to pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn, dispatched with a stunning display of both technical precision and empathy for the genius of the work at hand. Most in attendance seemed to agree, however, that the Emersons’ take on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat Major was worth the price of admission in itself. -- Jim Reed
The Del McCoury Band, 3/25
Savannah concerts are notorious for the bad manners of our audiences. However, this highly anticipated set of traditional “high, lonesome” bluegrass from one of the last sidemen of the late Bill Monroe still in his prime, was an exercise in restraint and respect from all corners. Perhaps it was the quiet, naturalistic PA mix of the show itself, or perhaps everyone in Trustees Theatre was happy to keep their mouths shut and pay their respects to one of the genre’s finest.
Whatever the reason, this rousing set of traditionals, originals, and re-interpretations of material from artists as disparate as Hank Williams, Sr. and Richard (Fairport Convention) Thompson, was a glory to behold – and a whisper quiet one at that. As if to return the favor, Del and his band (including two of his sons) stuck around in the lobby for upwards of three hours, signing autographs and visiting with fans. -- Jim Reed
New York Collegium, 3/25
Any orchestra can play music from 1600-1750, but this ensemble uses period instruments gives performances as close as possible to those of the composers’ heyday. The audience saw and heard valveless horns and trumpets, and there were also recorders, often thought of as the predecessor of our modern transverse flute, but bearing quite another tone quality.
The first piece was Telemann’s Thunder Ode, a response to the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Despite the subject, this setting of various Psalm verses was often lively music, and the clear tones of the soloists and chorus rendered the German text with excellent diction.
Most audience members were already familiar with the Water Music Suite by Handel. Instead, we heard the Water Music of Telemann. This work treated us not only to full orchestral passages, but included smaller ensembles, for example a bassoon playing with two recorders for a refreshingly bucolic effect.
The second half of the concert was dedicated to German-born George Frideric Handel. The organ in this concert was small and self-contained, with one manual and a sweet, flute-like tone, a far cry from our modern instrument. The program ended with Alexander’s Feast. I appreciated the singers’ diction to its fullest: even when the nine-member chorus sang, the text rang out clearly and comprehensibly, almost as clearly as speech.
Andrew Parrot conducted the entire concert without using a baton, swaying his upper body and moving his head rhythmically to communicate with performers. -- Ted Seaman
Ben Tucker’s Birthday, 3/29
Though our own Ben Tucker was the center of attention, he gracefully shared the spotlight with a cast of all-star jazz talents. Indeed, at some points Tucker was content to literally take a backseat, chilling out by the drummer while accompanying genius performers like Wycliffe Gordon (who I’m now calling the Jimi Hendrix of the trombone) and Bob Masteller ( “Who’s the white guy blowing the hell out the trumpet?” was the question on everyone’s lips).
A highlight came when one of jazz’s greatest living bassists, Delbert Felix, took over Ben’s ax for one tune. Even Ben himself looked on in amazement as Felix soloed, effortlessly channeling something bigger than himself.
Ben rose to the challenge of these mega-talented colleagues, giving some intensely focused, meditative solos.
An emotional moment came as Rob Gibson brought a birthday cake onstage (which Ben put in his stool and promptly sat on, getting white frosting on his pants), followed by a painting of Tucker himself. Visibly moved by the gesture as well as the love sent his way all night, true to form Ben quietly thanked everyone and returned to his bass. – Jim Morekis
Marcus Roberts Trio w/Wycliffe Gordon, 3/29
Another standing-room-only event at Orleans Hall, this pairing of one of the finest old-school piano jazz combos in the business with one of the most respected –and innovative– trombonists on the scene, maintained the almost perversely high level of quality that their pairings have come to be known for.
Stand-up bassist Roland Guerin once more proved himself the most underrated talent in the group (he’s played alongside Roberts since 1996). His intense, off-kilter take on a Thelonious Monk composition was a leaping off point which quirky, regimented trap drummer Jason Marsalis (yes, Branford’s brother) was more than capable of expanding upon. Gordon, too, emerged in the second of two sets as one of the more adventurous and daring horn players to be found today. He delights in using a variety of mutes that help him coax all manner of guttural squeals and growls from his instrument.
Roberts himself epitomizes detached cool, breezing through even breathlessly complex keyboard runs with a studied expression that’s never too far from becoming a playful smile. -- Jim Reed
Derek Trucks Band, 3/30
Slide blues genius Derek Trucks and company played two full sets at the Trustees, picking up the slack for absent opener Oteil Burbridge, who recently broke his leg in a motorcycle accident.
Seamlessly blending masterful slide blues technique with Eastern styles – often in the same song – Trucks performed much material from his new CD Songlines, which was selling like hotcakes before the show even started.
Truck’s wife Susan Tedeschi, a skilled blues performer in her own right, ended the first set by lending her powerful voice to a raucous, up-tempo take on “The Weight.”
A surreal and hilarious Simpsons moment came about fifteen minutes into the first set. Trucks had by then opened up full-bore, pumping out some rowdy and piercing blues licks high up on the neck of his Gibson SG. Suddenly down front, there was a commotion: at least 20 elderly folk – some literally using canes to walk – hightailed for the exit as if the building were on fire. After the mass exodus of grimacing seniors there ensued a mad rush by patrons in the back to claim their seats. -- Jim Morekis
Rebirth Brass Band, 3/31
Surely one of the more uplifting and unhinged events at this year’s festival, the three unique sets by this internationally-celebrated New Orleans horn and percussion group saw festival staff clearing away several tables near the front of the stage to create a large dance floor which was filled by a ragtag armada of yuppies, hippies, housewives, and jazzbos – all with one thing in common: a strong desire to get down.
With beaded, Mardis Gras-style parasols held aloft, the throngs bent, swayed, ducked and jumped to what amounted to an almost nonstop jam of loud, feel-good, inspirational funk and bluesy jazz marches. Clad in loose-fitting T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, the octet, led by founder and tuba player Philip Frazier offered an undeniable (if laid-back) rebuttal of the notion that the famed Big Easy culture had been diminished by Hurricane Katrina. -- Jim Reed
Timothy Hall, organ, with Heidi Bindhammer, 3/31
Organ music is thriving in Savannah. With the inaugural recital of a new organ at First Presbyterian in February, the acquisition of a new organ at Independent Presbyterian last year, and a new organ at St. Peter’s Episcopal two years ago, having quality instruments is a concern in the community.
The Fantasia in G, a monumental fifteen-minute piece by Bach, opened the program bombastically. Lighter registrations greeted us in Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum,” with local soprano Heidi Bindhammer’s soaring voice and well-articulated melismas floating through the cathedral’s air. We also heard her in Fauré’s “Pie Jesu” and Caccini’s “Ave Maria.”
The most recently composed piece in the recital, from 1969, was by French composer Olivier Messiaen, number 8 of the “Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.” For me, it was the highlight of the solo organ works played. This particular “meditation” was a mini-drama of nervous expectation and elated praise, featuring statements of plain chant melody, powerful chords, and frenetic passage work.
Mr. Hall also played some opera transcriptions, and ended the program with the final movement of the first organ symphony by blind French organist Louis Vierne. This wash of chords and arpeggios was true ear candy: you may not be able to hum the tunes on the way out, but you certainly savor the music while it is being played. -- Ted Seaman
‘The Gospel Truth’, 4/1
This amazing showcase of A-list black gospel and praise bands was simultaneously one of the most inspirational events of the entire festival and one of the most depressing. Inspirational because the caliber of talent was stunning in its scope and quality, and depressing because of the shameful way in which the local community – in particular the local African-American community – failed to support it.
There’s no good reason why this event should not have been completely sold out (even considering that it competed with the NCAA’s Final Four Tournament). The number of believers and gospel enthusiasts in the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry is huge. One of the featured acts was the 200-voice Savannah Music Festival Mass Choir made up of top vocalists from several area churches (most of them black), and led by the award-winning James Bignon, former Minister of Music for the Georgia Mass Choir and a Christian music superstar with local connections. If only two friends or family members of each choir member had shown up, that alone would have been 400 tickets. Yet by all accounts, barely 600 seats were sold.
Still, all the acts turned in impressive performances (especially the show closing Campbell Brothers) – but you could tell the concert never really kicked into the high gear the talent pool suggested it was capable of.
The next time naysayers malign the Savannah Music Festival for supposedly neglecting this area’s black listener base, they’d be well advised to remember this very public brush-off and place the blame where it truly belongs. And that’s the gospel truth. -- Jim Reed
‘The Soldier’s Tale’, 4/2
“This is a theatre piece,” explained Rob Gibson as he invited everyone in the Lucas, regardless of ticket, to fill spaces down front for this intimate, quirky and engaging piece by Stravinsky.
Playing several roles, from Satan to soldier, British actor/director Jonathan Moore sat in a stool centerstage, flanked by seven musicians, including Festival Associate Artistic Director Daniel Hope and his wife Annika on bass. Dialogue mixed with inventive music and drama mixed with comedy as Moore used practically every dialect and accent known to the British Isles to bring the characters to life.
I can’t say enough about the violin wizardry of Daniel Hope, whom I had the privilege of hearing play several times during the Festival. Bold and assertive, yet with a fluid and feather-light bow-hand, Hope more than lives up to his advance billing as one of classical music’s brightest young stars.
Gibson told the audience that at next year’s Festival, Hope will solo at the Lucas in a performance of the matchless Brahms Violin Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I’m so there, people. -- Jim Morekis