After the five person Madrigaia group walked off stage at the Pantages Theatre in Winnipeg, I think the audience of 1300 was surprised to see a whopping 13 people take the stage in the form of Portland, Oregon's Pink Martini, a "mini-orchestra" specializing in Latin, classical and sultry vocal jazz, often sung in foreign languages. Opening with Ravel's "Bolero, the audience immediately gave them applause after the few opening notes of Pansy Chang's cello. When trumpeter Gavin Bondy stepped up to the mike and blasted out his notes, the room erupted once again in applause. It was a sensational opening piece that showed the audience, without a doubt, this band could play.
Following this tune, leader and pianist Thomas Lauderdale, who looks not unlike a young Asian Elton John with his glasses and shock of spiky blond hair, introduced yet another member of the band, the focal point, singer China Forbes. Forbes, who was also a Broadway performer, dressed in a tasteful black dress, joked about she was shopping at Holt Renfrew and ended up heading back there to try a few more things on. She was very much the confident, beautiful centerpiece but what surprised me the most was the number of languages she sang in! Like Thomas Lauderdale, she graduated cum laude from Harvard. I couldn't tell from my 9th row seat, but Forbes' mom is African American and her dad French-Scottish.
A few of the songs originated from decades old movies, some of which they transcribed only to learn they wrote some of the words down incorrectly. While the band could have taken the easy way and simply played nothing but standards sung in English, I have to give them credit for seeking out songs from other cultures and singing them in their original languages. Forbes sang in Japanese, Portugese, French, Spanish, Croation and Arabic. Still, after a while, I grew a little weary of the foreign vocals. A few other members of the band also sang lead vocals, including the trombonist Robert Taylor. They even joked about how they enlisted the help of a Portland professor to get the pronunciation correct for the Egyptian film song "Bukra Wba'do,"which is on their new album Hey, Eugene. You've got to marvel at the lengths they must go to to find obscure, exotic material to interpret their own way.
What I like about Pink Martini is that they don't play it safe. Forbes wasn't afraid to write about men who swept her off of her feet and then never called her. She recounted one such encounter which turned into the song, "Hey Eugene," which had the audience in stitches.
While both Lauderdale and Forbes met at Harvard, they went their separate ways after graduation. Lauderdale was unsatisfied with the music being performed at political fund raisers and formed the band in 1994 to provide better music. Forbes kept on commuting to the West Coast until finally she decided to settle their and make the band her full time career.
After the show, the band met hundreds of new and old adoring fans in the lobby for a meet and greet and to sign CDs.
Are Pink Martini too eccentric or do they strike the right balance of virtuosity and kitsch for modern audiences who don't want anything resembling the cheese of Lawrence Welk while wishing to revel in the sonic glory and visual spectacle of a mini-orchestra? For me, it's the latter.
Openers, local a cappella group Madrigaia, sing in several languages and for the first time played with a drummer. Their best material so far is from their landmark first album, and since they played more newer songs, the show was very good but not quite superb. Still, they no doubt played in front of many people who had not seen them before. Some of them looked like they are having a good time, while others looked a little apprehensive. Madrigaia performed for Queen Elizabeth at the Forks a couple of years ago and are worth checking out.