Coinciding with the 25th Anniversary of Pink Martini – a multi-cultural, wildly eclectic global music sensation that must be heard and seen live to be fully appreciated – the Hollywood Bowl fashioned the perfect, fun-filled late summer party weekend. From August 23-25, the ensemble fronted by founder/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and lead singer China Forbes held court with a seeming guest cast of hundreds, backed by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins, with each night featuring a very different opening act. The first night it was folk/punkers Violent Femmes, the middle show showcased Mexican-America Latin fusion local heroes La Santa Cecelia, and the finale the legendary Booker T’s Stax Revue.
With songs in 25 languages and a collective that has featured up a dozen musicians, Pink Martini dynamically transcends genres as it filters, weaves and refreshes its musical tastes and energies through influences as diverse as classical, classic pop, Latin music and jazz, to start with. When Lauderdale launched what he calls his “mini-orchestra” in the mid-90’s, his idea was to bring a little bit of Breakfast at Tiffany’s to political fundraising for important bipartisan causes. Pink Martini has subsequently performed with symphony orchestras throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, Australia, Northern Africa and the Middle East. When you have songs sung in that many tongues and a freewheeling musical aesthetic that keeps pushing boundaries, there are no limits to how vast this global fan base can be.
Being a newbie to the Pink Martini experience, I was a tad confused looking at their bio page in the program which had a pic of 14 dapperly dressed musicians, and then seeing on the playbill that the group itself, on this night was just Lauderdale and Forbes, with everyone else – and that’s an expansive “everyone else” – performing as a guest. Lauderdale’s quick, spirited and often witty introductions of those guests throughout the 80 minute set let us know that he was the creative glue driving the bustling energy all around him.
Forbes provided a compelling focal point at various junctures, sharing her glorious lead vocals on several band mainstays, including the sensual, horn-drenched Latin jam opener “Amado Mio”; the sweet and sassy, old timey French tune “Sympathique,” the first song Lauderdale and Forbes ever wrote; their quirky funk hit “Hey Eugene” and the dreamily romantic Italian gem “Una Notte a Napoli.”
The rest of the set? Let’s just say it was a wild and wacky, breakneck speed cornucopia of every style and musical notion under the sun, a madcap revue, with musical guest after guest after guest trotted out to take the audience and the Pink Martini aesthetic in completely new directions literally every five minutes. Best described as joyful schizophrenia, it was all over the map, but deliberately and (mostly) delightfully so. Anyone trying to pinpoint exactly who Pink Martini was behind the endless guests might have been out of luck because partying was the theme of the night.
The well-paced set balanced festive frolicking (Timothy Nishimoto’s Latin dance romp “Donde Estas Yolanda”) and deeply emotional moments (soulful vocalist Jimmie Herrod’s culturally inclusive, torchy reworking of the “Theme From Exodus”) with literal LOL moments, like when Australian cabaret performer Meow Meow playing seductive coquette to two excited audience members who were allowed to get touchy-feely as she sang “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”
Along the way, we got to hear NPR host Ari Shapiro use his towering vocals to sing the melancholy French tune “Et Maintenant”; a torchy, crowd pleasing jazz/soul rendition of “Love For Sale” by Kathleen Saadat, a singer who made her recording debut recently at age 77; fashion designer Ikram Goldman singing the sexy Middle Eastern tune “Al Bint Al Shabiya,” recorded by Fairuz on Pink Martini’s 2016 album Je dis oui!; Edna Vasquez turning “Besame Mucho” into a sensual powerhouse rock ballad; and The von Trapps (adult descendants of Werner von Trapp, aka “Kurt” in “The Sound of Music” creating lush a capella vocal textures with “Storm,” which they recorded on Dream A Little Dream, their 2014 collaborative album with Pink Martini. Almost every act was preceded by Lauderdale saying, “Making their Hollywood Bowl debut…”
Though perhaps the least exotic and most mainstream song of the night, the most engaging and singalong infectious number from my perspective was “I Am Woman,” the Helen Reddy women’s lib classic (repurposed for the #MeToo era) sung (some doing leads, all joining for a rousing choir vibe) by over a dozen former Miss Americas from over the past six decades. It literally took longer to introduce them all as they walked onstage than the song took to sing! They all looked fab and sang their parts beautifully.
Saturday’s opening act was La Santa Cecelia, a dynamic four-piece Grammy winning Latin ensemble (joined by two guests) who play everything from cumbia and bossa nova to boleros while simmering and flying high with blues and rock energy. Their unique sound combines gorgeous acoustic with sizzling electric guitars, traditional accordion flavors and deep, polyrhythmic percussion – all in the service of the amazing seductive yet often guttural impassioned vocals (sung in Spanish, English and “Spanglish”) of La “Marisoul” Hernandez. They are named after the patron saint of music – and with every note, you could feel those divine blessings flowing through the hypnotically cool rough edges.