Thursday, September 15, 2005

I had the opportunity to see Pink Martini in concert last weekend. Which until recently was not something for which I would have hoped. I discovered them on Napster back in its glory days, when you could download songs of your choice for free without worrying about spyware and the RIAA. If memory serves, I was looking for the version of "Que Sera Sera" from Heathers, but found their version instead, which led me to find "Bolero" soon after. I purchased Sympathique and was absolutely blown away. But as the album had been out a few years and their was no sign on a new album, I doubted I would see any new material, let alone a tour in my neck of the woods. But then the new album, Hang on Little Tomato, came like a shot from the dark, and if it wasn't as good as Sympathique, it was still damn good. And then, lo and behold, the entire ensemble (more or less) announced they were coming to San Diego. I actually was considering a trip to San Jose to see them there, when I found out I could see them at the Belly Up Tavern for $18. That was a no-brainer.

I had never been to the Belly Up, but it was about what I expected, like a pre-fab barn with limited seating but plenty of standing room. I arrived too early, after having dinner at Tony's Jacal, a decent Mexican restaurant with a nice, Old Town ambiance. The beans and rice were first-rate, the carne asada unimpressive. I had a coupon for a free appetizer, some sort of turkey tostada thing, which made it a pretty good value overall. The Mexican food heavy in my belly, I skipped the bar and took my place on the floor. I spoke to someone who had been to their show the previous night, at the Hollywood Bowl. He said that Pink Martini played less than an hour at that show, and he seemed generally disappointed with that show, so I was somewhat concerned waiting for the show to start. But we both agreed this was a great venue in which to see them, a band with a devoted core following, and with an enhanced exposure from the new album and various soundtrack/compilation album appearances. They had played for some 16,000 people the night before, and now the twelve musicians were going to take the stage for a sold-out crowd of about 600 (they left the Brazillian dancers at the Hollywood Bowl, apparently). Vocalist China Forbes commented on the different energies of the two evenings, and when she said, "We're definately coming back here," she seemed to mean the Belly Up. But I have my doubts, as they would have no trouble filling up a larger venue with higher ticket prices (and given the number of mouths in the band to feed, making a bit more off ticket sales seems a reasonable desire). So even given that I was in some degree of pain from standing for three hours or so, and given that some of the people at the bar apparently bought tickets far in advance to the sold-out show just to have a place to talk, I treasured the opportunity to see Pink Martini in this great, intimate venue.

Pink Martini is somewhat difficult to describe, though attempts to describe them tend to overreach a tad, making them sound like some musical mutant (the Belly Up's web site describes them as being "somewhere between a 1930s Cuban dance orchestra, a classical chamber music ensemble, a Brasilian marching street band and Japanese film noir"). I tend to describe their sound as jazzy French caberet with latin influences, which seems like a good start (but why bother describing them? You can stream both albums in their entierty on their web site, so hear it for yourself). Sunday night, the emphasis seemed to be those latin influences (though perhaps they just are more overpowering when you see them live). But they lived up to their reputation for eclecticism, covering a wide range of material from both albums, including some French and Japanese tunes, and some new material, giving some hope we won't have to wait seven years for another album. Most notable amongst the new material was a tune called "Goodbye Little Bumblebee." But "goodbye" was in Russian, and "little bumblebee" in Italian, so it was something like "Da Svidaniya poco bumblebinno" (the translation for bumblebee I got off the web didn't sound close to what she was singing; it was something like "bambino"). The song sounded like a song of that title should, and I'm sure this Russo-Italian march/love song will make their new album a must-have, whenever that comes along.

Despite the concerns raised by comments on the Hollywood Bowl concert, I enjoyed the performance very much. They played most of the new album, and several songs from the old album, in addition to new material. And they closed with "Brazil," one of my favorites. I doubt I will see them in a similar venue in the future, as it must be cost-prohibitive to bring an ensemble of twelve musicians and many instruments down to San Diego to perform for a relatively small crowd. Which in a way is fine; I wouldn't mind seeing them in a more formal environment, with a little less chatter, and where I'm only on my feet if I choose to be. But I had a great time, and urge you to see them if you have the opportunity, and hear the albums if you haven't already.

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