Usher Hall, 04/11/14
There are very few bands in the world who are able to maintain, and grow, steady popularity over the course of two decades in today’s music industry. You’ll get the occasional prodigal solo act or a sleek and cool rock band that manage to accomplish it, and these are probably the people who come to mind when you think of popular acts. But very few people would believe that a 12-piece ensemble of trumpeters, violinists, and other classical instrumentalists that play Cuban-style, Japanese noir music in languages that range from English to Croatian to Chinese, could achieve the same heights. But, surprisingly enough, Pink Martini is that wildly popular dark horse, and proved solidly at Usher Hall on November 4 why they have had such a strong following since 1994.
It is worth initially mentioning the two most prominent members of the ensemble, not just because of their front-man qualities, but because of the truly unmatched talent they have in their musical fields. They are the big draw for most fans of Pink Martini.
First is lead singer and principal songwriter China Forbes, whose range isn’t just incredible, but her versatility is unbelievably wide. She can go from yodelling to songs from The Sound of Music, to sounding like a Cuban jazz singer in the 1920s, to sounding like someone you might hear in the chart today. Singing modern ballads as well as uptempo numbers, she can belt out any note and hold it for however long she pleases and, without a doubt, the entire audience goes wild for it and is always left craving for another second. Her personality and cool confidence shines through her voice and between-songs conversations; a quality that makes her performance even more intoxicating.
And secondly, and probably most impressively, is the founder of Pink Martini, another big personality on stage and the band’s pianist, is Thomas Lauderdale. This man has a CV that already gives him a pretty strong edge over the competition, studying piano performance at Harvard University and having played with practically every composer you could think of (plus more) to perfection. His classical training shows, and actually influences a great number of the songs. Several of Pink Martini’s biggest hits of the night were actually foundationally pieces of Schubert that were played by Lauderdale, but then layered with Cuban or Mediterranean influences on top of it. You truly could get a sense of feeling like you were listening to a symphony-style pianist while also feeling like you were at a nightclub in Havana almost a century ago. Lauderdale’s training and natural musical genius is obvious and robust on stage and is due the credit of what makes Pink Martini so unique, and so popular.
Speaking to Lauderdale and Forbes, quite candidly she admitted that they rarely have shows quite as wild and outrageous as this one. The show at Usher Hall involved audience members dancing on stage, old ladies twerking in the aisles, people placing song requests on the stage that the band eventually turned into a massive mash-up, the descendants of Maria and Georg von Trapp, and the show ending with about a quarter of the audience dancing in a conga line around the venue. But even with this crazy display, it is hard to believe that their other shows aren’t as equally vivacious as this particular performance. The band has such ease with every member of this massive group and they manage to read each other like they were all sharing a single brain. These complex tunes seemed effortless and, probably because of the twenty years the band has had to play together, they felt like one coherent being, not a combination of parts. It’s hard to imagine a Pink Martini gig where the audience isn’t having a blast and where the entire ensemble isn’t an absolute riot and delight to watch.
Having heard very few of their tracks before actually attending a show can make you a bit hesitant as to whether you will be able to enjoy such a strange, eclectic fusion of different musical styles, several of which can be new territory and others that aren’t particularly enjoyable. But with flawless grace and musical genius, every member of Pink Martini managed to make every second of an over two hour performance one hundred per cent entertaining, and more often than not, giving the audience chills with its powerful sound. They are truly unlike any other musical group and deserve to be on every music-lover’s bucket list of concerts to see.