Saturday, January 21, 2006

Dr. John

Dr. John -- born Mac Rebennack, he renamed himself after a 19th-century New Orleans voodoo practitioner -- might seem to be a creature of artifice. The sight of his piano at the Rams Head in Annapolis on Wednesday, bedecked with purple-and-gold streamers and topped with a grinning skull, didn't promise otherwise.

Consider "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," from the Night Tripper's mythmaking first album. Here it was slower and eerier, as the singer wailed and growled about his "satchel of gris-gris."

Beyond the tantalizing zombie imagery, though, the man and his band, the Lower 911, offered up-to-the-minute commentary that was sometimes amusing, sometimes disturbing and often thought-provoking, with as much "emotional truth" as certain modern memoirs. The evening's most delightful topical observation wasn't, as one might expect, about the band's hometown tragedies, at least not directly. In Dave Bartholomew's 1950s song "The Monkey Speaks His Mind," the band created an atmosphere of chimpanzee cries and funky jazz, as a simian told his tree-branch companions that the idea of man descending from "our noble race" is a "big disgrace."

On the darker side was a portion of Dr. John's "Sippiana Hericane" suite. As guitarist John Fohl, bassist David Barard and percussionist Herman Ernest III measured out a Latin groove, Dr. John pounded out SOSs on the keys. Ernest offered a stark, post-destruction drum solo. And as these elements blended, the men chanted a version of "Wade in the Water," an incantation that was both an eyewitness account and a defiant prayer.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Conductor Stefan Sanderling performed a sensitive balancing act with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore Hall on Thursday evening, keeping strict reins on four very different pieces while managing to coax out all their delicate perfume.

The pieces -- Falla's Suite from "The Three-Cornered Hat," Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," Faure's Pavane and Stravinsky's Suite From "Pulcinella" -- were all treated to Sanderling's focus on musical architecture and his fastidiousness with rhythmic structures. Yet, the music never felt straitjacketed, as he sculpted melodic figures with great tenderness and played-up each work's piquant woodwind coloring (made all the more prominent thanks to a reduced number of strings).

The orchestra played with elegant finish throughout the evening, and guitarist Manuel Barrueco proved a superb soloist in the Rodrigo concerto: Disciplined and virtuosic, his phrasing was as natural as it was rhapsodic.

As the first in a BSO series of multimedia, art-and-music concerts this season, this program -- dubbed "The Art of Picasso" -- was fairly successful. NPR commentator Mark Mobley (informative, pop-culturally aware and breezily irreverent) made a lively narrator, drawing links between Picasso and the music on the program. Now, if they can lose the professorial lectern, light the musicians more evocatively, increase the number and projection size of the art images, color-correct and cross-fade the slides, and have the orchestra underscore the narration, the result might feel less like night school.

-- Joe Banno

Harry Manx

Two guitars and a banjo awaited folk-blues performer Harry Manx when he took to the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Thursday evening, but it was the instrument he carried out with him that was the most intriguing: the Mohan veena, a 20-string instrument invented by Indian classical musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. (The veena is the ancestor of many Indian stringed instruments.) In the opening number, Van Morrison's "Crazy Love," Manx played the guitar-shaped instrument primarily as if it were a dobro but occasionally interjected raga-like flourishes. The combination suited the song, which is both blues-based and ecstatic, a product of Morrison's cosmic early-'70s period.

As his name suggests, Manx is a native of the Isle of Man. He's now based in Canada but spent five years in India studying with Bhatt. To judge by Thursday's set, the experience didn't transform him. The Indian influence emerged only in brief asides, as the musician mixed serviceable originals with blues classics by Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams.

Joining Manx for most of the show, versatile harmonica player Steve Mariner boosted the bluesiness, although not always predictably. Mariner honked some Chicago blues solos, but when complementing Manx's voice, he produced long tones that resembled an organ's. The two men's skills were impressive and their rapport palpable. Still, it was a little disappointing that Manx never quite found his way back to the rapturous East-West fusion of his opening selection.

-- Mark Jenkins

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