Monday, 3 November 2014

Camp heaven with Pink Martini and The Von Trapps

Pink Martini
There are times in life when something happens that, however quirky and however surreal, it is perfectly suited to the situation.

Last week, finding myself singing along with four members of the von Trapp family to the Lonely Goatherd, was just such an occasion.

It was Thursday, toward the end of what could only be described – at its most polite – as a bit of a bitch of a week, and The Other Half and I found ourselves traipsing out west for the evening.

It had been six months ago that I’d booked tickets to see Pink Martini at the Eventim (Hammersmith) Apollo.

A 10-12 piece combo that founder and classically-trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale has called a “little orchestra”, it has also been variously described as being “somewhere between a 1930s Cuban dance orchestra, a classical chamber music ensemble, a Brazilian marching street band and Japanese film noir”, performing something that’s “part language lesson, part Hollywood musical”.

Or put another way, this is an act that defies easy and lazy labels.

The Other Half was introduced to Pink Martini some years ago, by colleagues playing the 1997 album Sympathique in a bar. He bought a copy – and then introduced me to two tracks in particular: Brazil and Que Sera Sera.

They are glorious versions – the latter, a haunting track, redolent of a ghostly fairground – and for someone who still loves all that old-fashioned Hollywood glamour, it was a perfect sound, although it should be pointed out that the Pinks organised and performed in a concert for the Occupy movement a couple of years ago, so for all that rather privileged backgrounds of some members, they’re hardly ‘Establishment’.

We have, in the years since, got most of their albums, but had never quite managed to catch them on stage – and indeed, had heard from someone who had seen them live, that they were a little ‘too perfect’ and a little flat live.

But six months ago, when tickets for a tour became available, I snapped up a pair – and then promptly forgot about it.

By Wednesday, when The Other Half reminded me, I was almost relieved not to be able to find the tickets anywhere: the last thing I felt like was trekking out to Hammersmith.

The following morning, however, Eventim proved calmly efficient at replacing the tickets and left them at the box office to collect, so there was no backing out.

Thursday turned out to be a nine-hour working day and my eyes were bugging as we caught the Tube west.

The Von Trapps
A hot dog from a van, followed by a (vastly overpriced) glass of Zinfandel rosé in the Art Deco bar served as preparation.

The crowd was still sparse when the house lights dipped and the quartet of The Von Trapps came out on stage.

Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August are four of six siblings, grandchildren of Werner von Trapp, the fourth son of Captain von Trapp and step-son of Maria.

As one of the girls told us, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of their story, Werner is renamed and becomes the boy who introduces himself to Maria as “I’m Kurt and I’m incorrigible” (oh, I remember the scene exactly).

This all won bursts of applause from some in the audience.

Anyway, in opening the concert, the half-hour set by this young group was charming and thoroughly enjoyable. It included a lovely cover of Dream A Little Dream and a new song that they had penned themselves, Storm – but nothing from that show.

It was, though, very easy to see how they fit into the eclectic oeuvre of Pink Martini.

I was a little concerned, however, at the minimal level of atmosphere in the auditorium – which is a very large one. Would that report of a flat gig prove to be the same again?

After a half-hour interlude, on came Pink Martini themselves.

I had no need to fret. The hall was now far fuller, and it lifted as the band, with Lauderdale at the piano and China Forbes on lead vocals – looking like Callas in a flowing, black number – took the evening by the scruff of the neck, zipped up the rhythm and had the place rocking within minutes.

Witty spoken interludes included Forbes relating how, after making the mistake of assuming that some words they used for one of their earliest songs were out of copyright, they were sued in France – after which the French “asked us for our autographs”.

They’re playing the Follies Bergères in the next few weeks.

Lauderdale explained how he composed two different songs from the same classical root – a Schubert piece. The results were And Then Youre Gone and But Now I’m Back, the first of which features a woman angrily dismissing her lover after he’s left unexpectedly, while the latter sees him asking to be let back, and coming up with excuses as to his disappearance.

After Forbes sang the first, the second was performed by special guest Ari Shapiro – an American international reporter for National Public Radio who is now based in London, having previously been the stations White House correspondent, and who sings (and sings very well) with the Pinks as a sideline.

The first of these songs segues easily from the Schubert to Latin beats, while the second moves into a swing style. Both are excellent.

The band seriously upset house management by inviting members of the audience to come up on stage and dance around them: it’s a big stage and there were, after all, steps on either side leading to and from the stalls.

Good-humoured chaos ensued, as a cross-generational crowd piled up the steps and others danced in the aisles, with senior house staff (“sorry to see its a police state”, noted Lauderdale sniffily, afterwards) desperately trying to stop the fun.

In a technological first (for this blog, anyway) Ive managed to upload some video footage to give you an idea.

And when I say “cross-generational, I mean it: Lauderdale had the house lights raised so as to find a 94-year-old woman who attends every London gig they play, while there were clearly children dancing on stage.

Other songs included a version of Abba’s Fernando – sung in Swedish, with Latin rhythms, and including the von Trapps as backing – which was just wonderful.

Their complex use of percussion reminds me of a drum band we encountered at a street festival in Barcelona some years ago – and which I loved then.

And a special little mention here for Timothy Nishimoto, who is not only one of three percussionists, but also adds vocals on some songs, and has some amazing dance moves.

It’s impossible to sit still to this sort of music: the woman next to me was managing – although I don’t know how, because I simply couldn’t.

And late on, the encores – almost an extra mini set – included the Lonely Goatherd with the von Trapps.

Now, if you think my previous comment of it as surreal is over done, think about it.

These were four young members of a family that has a genuinely remarkable backstory anyway, which was turned into a stage show and film that became such a smash global hit – it’s called ‘Rebel Nun’ in Argentina, by the way – that it’s been a substantial boost for the Austrian tourist industry.

Here they were, singing a song that was written for the fictionalised versions of their own grandfather and step great-grandmother.

And if you don’t think that that could ever be out-camped, it can and was – with Forbes and Shapiro teaming up to ‘do’ Barbra and Judy doing Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy.

Not forgetting, of course, that to finish things off came the Pinks’ biggest hit, Brazil, which had people congaing in the aisles.


It might have been a torrid week, but I cannot imagine a better antidote. Days later, the buzz remains.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the very best concerts/gigs that I have ever been to.

And if you haven’t heard Pink Martini before – then do yourself a favour.

They have an excellent website and YouTube channel, which includes footage of the likes of their version of Fernando, while there are seven studio albums and they tour frequently.

Pink Martini on YouTube

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