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PERFORMING ARTS

Monday, August 22, 2005

Herman's Hermits

Three things you won't find at a Herman's Hermits concert, circa 2005: (1) incisive critiques of global conflict, (2) more than a few audience members who need to be carded, and (3) rap.

Then again, that last one might not be out of the question, given that Friday at the Birchmere, the uncannily well-preserved Peter "Herman" Noone offered impersonations of Johnny Cash, Davy Jones, Tom Jones, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson, among others. (Surprisingly, he was most impressive as the Man in Black.) And his curiously anonymous band mates, none of whom were part of the '60s British Invasion pop combo, were only too happy to play Hermits, with efficient renditions of "Dandy," "No Milk Today," "I'm Into Something Good," and other Hermit and non-Hermit hits.

Noone's voice was a little too robust for the more ethereal numbers, and his attempt at "Battle of New Orleans" featured some ill-advised hoedowning, but the 57-year-old Noone's pelvic thrusts on "It's Not Unusual" might have startled Elvis. And his comedy was arguably more entertaining than his music -- on his first sight of the Birchmere's neighborhood: "Let's get the check now, lads -- because we can cash it right across the street!" Best of all was when he combined them: Brandishing an old LP with his profile on it, he declared, "Look at the size of that Peter!" and then, holding the near-life-size portrait above his shoulders, trotted through "Leaning on a Lamp Post."

Add in the British elocution lessons he offered the crowd before the concluding medley of hits ("It sounds like about 3,000 Camillas"), and the transformation of the Birchmere into a British pub on singalong night was well-nigh complete.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

'La Cenerentola'

Except for the lack of scenery, the performance of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" was exemplary Saturday night at Wolf Trap. Scenery is nice but not important in this opera, which is about human relations, not architecture or decor. The concert performance, ably directed by Garnett Bruce, had makeup and costumes and lots of spectacular acting and singing.

"Cenerentola" is a rational version of the Cinderella story; no fairy godmother, no pumpkin coach or glass slippers -- just the story of a sweet, intelligent girl in a hilariously dysfunctional family who makes all the right decisions (unlike her silly stepsisters) when confronted with a choice between glamour and solid worth. The music, well controlled by conductor Dean Williamson, ranks with Rossini's finest.

The best of many good performances in this "Cenerentola" was that of Kate Lindsey, a spectacularly talented mezzo-soprano, in the title role. From the early "Una volta c'era un re" to the final "Non piu mesta," Rossini made constant demands in this role, and she fulfilled them splendidly with a charming stage presence and a voice that was precise, agile and expressive throughout its wide range.

Tenor Javier Abreu (the Prince) has a nearly ideal bel canto voice, light, sweet and agile. The role of Don Magnifico, the witless stepfather, is one of the great basso buffo roles in Italian opera, and Jason Hardy brought all its acting and singing potential vividly to life.

Evelyn Pollock and Audrey Babcock sang the roles of the two stepsisters wittily and prettily, and Daniel Gross and Weston Hurt were excellent in supporting roles.

-- Joseph McLellan

John Mooney

Like John Hammond Jr., another veteran blues singer and guitarist with a passion for vintage Mississippi Delta tunes, John Mooney doesn't need to tour with a band to get a groove going. The combination of his pounding footwork and fiercely percussive guitar attack is all that's required.

Of course, a little amplification doesn't hurt, either. At the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Friday evening, Mooney relied on three electric guitars to color and propel his solo set -- two Stratocasters and a handmade instrument aptly dubbed the Swamp Box. He played slide on the custom-crafted six-string, producing single-note riffs and dense waves of reverberating overtones with every swipe of the fret board. He further heightened the rhythmic drive by using his middle fret-hand fingers to introduce knotty bass string runs.

When he picked up one of the Strats, Mooney favored a brighter, sometimes piercing tone, but his fret-hand thumb often dropped over the low E-string to evoke the sound of a bassist strutting along for the ride. The most stirring performance was also the most telling: a rendition of Son House's "Levee Camp Moan." As a teenager, Mooney became friends with the Delta blues legend, and one can still hear echoes of House's rhythmic power and spiritual thrust in Mooney's performances.

A fine singer with a booming voice, Mooney paid evocative tribute to other blues legends, including Robert Johnson, and punctuated the set with some original songs, wry and tender. He capped the set with a benediction of sorts, the Delta-flavored "Sacred Ground."

-- Mike Joyce

James Cotton

In the wake of the '60s blues revival, Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred harmonica legend James Cotton displayed inexhaustible energy. He toured relentlessly, putting on marathon (and wonderfully animated) concerts that would severely tax the voice and lung power of any mortal. But then he wasn't dubbed Mr. Superharp for nothing.

Cotton, now 70, doesn't get around much anymore onstage. At Blues Alley on Friday night, he remained seated for nearly the entire opening set. He didn't sing, either. Decades of strenuous road work have helped reduce his voice to a raspy mumble. But if showmanship still counts for anything, Cotton's performance was indeed super.

Supported by a four-piece band, he blew and blew and blew, often contrasting high-register, Jimmy Reed-like riffs with thick, resonating chords. He paused long enough to switch harps and seemed eager to provide the capacity crowd with a colorful overview of his remarkable career. There were vibrant reminders of his recordings for the Memphis Sun label ("Rocket 88") and his long tenure with the Muddy Waters band ("Got My Mojo Workin'," during which Cotton briefly strutted with a big smile). Post-Waters concert favorites also inspired harp-powered romps.

The show got off to a shaky start, however. Cotton's group opened with a couple of tunes torn right out of B.B. King's tour book. Guitarist "Slam" Allen has mastered King's "butterfly" vibrato technique, and he has a strong voice. But the performances lacked the requisite horn power, among other things. The band's sound didn't jell until Cotton appeared and Allen and fellow guitarist Tom Holland began trading complementary solos.

-- Mike Joyce

George Duke

George Duke and Roy Ayers, both native jazz players who found their greatest commercial successes outside the genre, played to a capacity crowd at Carter Barron Amphitheatre on Friday.

Duke, 59, was a speed-freak of a piano player when he broke out of the jazz scene in the early 1970s to play with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Now touring with a backing quintet, Duke's still got a thing for velocity. While reprising jazz fusion-era collaborations with Stanley Clarke, Duke beat on his bank of synthesizers as if it were a set of bongos. He feigned exhaustion while wearing out the same two-note lick for several minutes during a sweaty jam on "No Rhyme, No Reason."

But Duke, who supported jazz legends (Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Cannonball Adderley, with whom he played Carter Barron more than three decades ago) through the early portions of his career, got his biggest cheers when he went back to his romantic R&B ballads and disco biscuits. The crowd crooned along with Duke's young vocalist, Shannon Pearson, on "I Want You for Myself." And the ladies swooned when Duke sat behind a grand piano and sang the syrupy "Sweet Baby," a 1981 crossover soul hit. "When I wrote this, I told [co-writer Clarke], 'This isn't the song we'll be known for,' but it was the biggest song either one of us ever had," he said of "Sweet Baby." He got folks out of their rain-soaked seats with his 1978 dance-club hit, "Dukey Stick."

Opener Ayers, who turns 65 next month, managed to have funky hits in the 1970s on the least funky of instruments, the vibraphone. Legend holds that Ayers got his first set of mallets when he was of grammar school age -- a gift from vibes godfather Lionel Hampton. But among this audience, Ayers was best remembered for his contributions to dance music. Before playing a medley that included his 1977 disco hit, "Running Away," Ayers told the crowd that he "was playing smooth jazz before they called it smooth jazz." Ayers could have also correctly boasted that rappers have made him the most sampled vibes player of all time, and, given how his ilk is disappearing, among the last important vibesmen of any genre.

-- Dave McKenna

Big & Rich, Brooks & Dunn

The giant inflatable bull-riding dolls didn't stand a chance with Big & Rich competing for attention Saturday night. Neither did the act ostensibly topping the lineup at Nissan Pavilion, country duo Brooks & Dunn, along with the Warren Brothers. And did we mention the flavor of the moment, "hick-hop" artist Cowboy Troy?

With generous pyrotechnics and their vertically challenged, crazy-costumed sidekick, Two-Foot Fred, helping out, hot Musik Mafia performers Big & Rich backed up their reputations as the bad boys of country. Naughty hits "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" and "Kick My [Butt]" were among the highlights of their hour-long set, which, despite the act's claimed genre, felt resolutely rock-and-roll. (At least until Cowboy Troy joined them onstage for a raucous version of his first single, "I Play Chicken With the Train," a piece of Southern-fried hip-hop whose fresh, energetic sound stole the show.)

Next to Big & Rich's bluster, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn's bland 90-minute set seemed the country equivalent of easy listening. The duo performed their mid-tempo honky-tonks and wan ballads, including hits "Boot Scootin' Boogie" and "Neon Moon," with little fanfare and even less movement, seemingly as bored with their music as the thinning Nissan crowd. "I used to have a wild side . . . that's all changed now," Dunn sang on "Brand New Man." Disappointing, but apparently true.

-- Tricia Olszewski

Kiran Ahluwalia

Indian-born Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia's performance Saturday at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage was about halfway traditional. That wasn't because the set was divided 50-50 between upbeat Punjabi folk songs and plaintive ghazals , ballads of longing from a millennium-old tradition. Ahluwalia and her three-man backing troupe revamped both styles, notably by interjecting Rez Abbasi's Latin-jazz guitar solos into the customary union of chattering tabla, droning harmonium and keening voice.

As usually performed in Iran, India and Pakistan, ghazals are venerable classics, sung exclusively by men. Living in Toronto, Ahluwalia doesn't heed such strictures. She began composing her own melodies for contemporary verse written in Urdu and Punjabi by Canadian poets of South Asian descent. As revealed by Ahluwalia's new self-titled album (her U.S. debut), the results are austerely lovely.

In concert, however, the folk tunes were more satisfying. Their rollicking melodies, close relations to Bollywood movie tunes, absorbed Abbasi's flashy guitar more readily than the ghazals did. They also suited Ahluwalia's stage manner, which was outgoing and exuberant. She explained what the Punjabi lyrics were about -- young women who want love or jewelry, mostly -- and led a simple but effective singalong on "Koka," a plea for a gold nose ring.

While ballads such as "Yeh Nahin" provided the best showcase for Ahluwalia's gliding soprano, such sprightly tunes as "Meri Gori Gori" (an appeal for yellow bangles) blended all four musicians more completely.

-- Mark Jenkins

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