First off, Pink Martini’s music is so bubbly and effervescent you wonder why they didn’t name themselves Pink Champagne. Celebrating 25 years together, the band is simply a portable party.
Lead vocalist China Forbes, draped in silver and able to sing in up to 25 different languages, seems like an Erte sculpture come to life. She is theatrical, engaging and thoroughly lovable, befitting her stature as one of the most alluring frontwomen in the music pantheon. And she shines with the best of them. The band, under the supervision of the mischievous, witty and supremely talented pianist-composer Thomas Lauderdale, is formidable - well-rehearsed but jaunty and loose-limbed. I was musing that if I were to choose a band to tour the world as a representative of music in the United States, I would not hesitate to send Pink Martini. Minutes later, Lauderdale himself proclaimed: “Pink Martini is a rollicking around-the-world musical adventure. If the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we’d be that band.” In fact, by the end of the show, they had sung in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.
Interestingly, the orchestra is based not in Los Angeles or New York City, London or Paris, as you might suppose listening to their sassy sophisticated sound, but in Portland, Oregon, which is itself a progressive and attractive place to live. Nevertheless, they perform - and are justly adored - the world over. Sympathique (“Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler”), their first song, was a hit in France and is heard nationwide when the French go on strike.
The audience at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston howled its approval and clapped en masse from the opening notes of the first song. Furthermore, I noticed a whole lot of nuzzling, kissing and hugging going on. Pink Martini as the ultimate date night band, too?
Guest vocalist Edna Vasquez from Jalisco, Mexico sizzled on Besame Mucho, delivering an intense, slow-burning rendition of one of the Latin world’s most famous compositions. Quoting from Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Our Land, Jimmy Harrod, a second guest, was spellbinding, like a velvet-voiced oracle. Both vocalists are worthy of their own shows.
Longtime Martini singer and percussionist Timothy Nishimoto, gyrating like a rubber man and ‘scratching’ a big guira, crooned about his Japanese uncle who knows only two words in English: “Big One”, his pronunciation of which, at the end of each stanza, was hilarious.
The often camp Martinis, for all their vocal and musical prowess, play it for laughs!
The aforementioned vocalists were so outstanding I was cringing for Forbes, alarmed if she would be able to reclaim her own show. That’s how talented their guests were. Not to fear, though, for she was indomitable in cajoling one hundred women onto the stage with her to sing Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. In the wrong hands, this could have been hokey, even disastrous. Yet, the whole crowd was swaying and roaring along at the sight and sound of the impromptu massive beaming chorus. This raucous women’s empowerment interlude continued with a venue-shaking version of 9-5 from the hit movie of the same name.
In a gesture of humble egalitarianism, Lauderdale and Forbes disappeared to let the band demonstrate their talents, the composition featuring a series of searing solos on slide trombone, muted trumpet, bass, congas and a tom tom-centric drum bash which begged for a conga line of revelers. Like in a cabaret or speakeasy, I expected to see a group of flappers sashay onto the stage.
Martini maestro and founder Thomas Lauderdale, a mirthful wizard, expertly paced the house party, after each song popping off his piano stool for some schtick, merchandise promotion and banter, usually with China Forbes as his foil. Sometimes the jokes came so fast - rat-a-tat-tat - I couldn’t process them all. The ones I did, though, made me laugh.
Once heavily involved in political campaigns, Lauderdale quipped:
I used to want to change the world, but now I just want to leave the room with a little bit of dignity.
With scorching Latin-accented accompaniment featuring bongos and violin, Forbes, now clad in black, reclaimed the spotlight as she launched into an ardent paean to love, crooning:
I’ll hold you tight,
Love me forever,
And let forever…
Skinny and silver-suited, bespectacled and bow-tied, the limber Hashimoto wriggled slinkily hamming it up in Spanish for his Yolanda. In contrast, Vazquez followed with a stunning vocal evocative of the Middle East featuring an arresting esoteric Sufi chant. Lauderdale’s dreamy tinkling on the piano was pure Arabian Nights.
Once again, Forbes commanded center stage to belt out an early self-written raucous r&b tune called Hey, Eugene about a boy who begged and begged for her number but, disappointingly, waited two weeks before he called her. Then she relinquished the stage to prodigy Jimmy Harrod, who mesmerized the captivated crowd with a show-stopping rendition of Tomorrow from Annie.
Brazil, with Forbes at its center, was a fitting encore with the whole band assembled and the euphoric congregation on its feet dancing and singing along jubilantly.
Happy Birthday, Martinis, Evangelists of Song. And heartfelt congratulations on your 25-Year Silver Jubilee of merry minstrelsy.
You are golden!