Monday, January 15, 2007

Rene Marie and Kevin Mahogany

Jazz vocalists Rene Marie and Kevin Mahogany made for an oddly engaging couple at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Saturday night, even when she wasn't dancing a few laps around him, like a small planet orbiting a very large one.

The pairing made for more than a few moments that crackled with spontaneity, particularly toward the end of the program when Marie, always a live wire onstage, and Mahogany, an imposing figure with a resounding baritone, matched wits and wattage on the soul classic "Bring It On Home to Me."

The vocal harmonies weren't always spot-on during the evening, and Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," performed as a salute to Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, came across as well intentioned but uninspired. But there was no mistaking the duo's chemistry, spirit and crowd-pleasing appeal. Indeed, this partnership could enliven any summer jazz festival lineup.

The concert wasn't entirely devoted to duets. Marie opened with a brief set that swiftly revealed her gifts as both singer and songwriter. She clearly struck an emotional chord with the audience when she performed "This Is Not a Protest Song," a self-penned topical ballad worthy of the late Nina Simone. Mahogany, a disciple of the late balladeer Johnny Hartman, warmly revived a couple of his hits, including "For All We Know." Crisp, colorful accompaniments were provided by pianist Kevin Bales, drummer Quentin Baxter and alternating bassists Rodney Jordan and Chuck Bergeron.

-- Mike Joyce

The Ambitions at Black Cat

Alack of ambition hurt the Ambitions' performance Friday night at the Black Cat. The '60s-style soul band never deviated from its catalogue of up-tempo songs that sounded like forgotten Supremes singles. The Washington quintet charmed for about the first 10 minutes, but its music felt a little repetitive for the next 40.

The show did offer some highlights: The Ambitions have a fantastic original song called "Look at Me." It's a sassy number in which leading lady Caz Gardiner beckons for attention: "Don't look away, pretty baby / C'mon, c'mon, look at me / Like what you see, pretty baby / C'mon, c'mon, look at me."

The crowd didn't have anything else compelling to watch. While Gardiner twirled, hopped and catwalked around the stage, half of her band wore the kind of flat expressions most people reserve for the third hour of watching reruns of "Law & Order" on TNT. Gardiner was a bright spot of energy with her cute dance moves, loud dress and head full of bouncy shoulder-length curls. But eye candy (and a confident vocal delivery) can't make up for monotonous material.

The band closed with a fun Supremes cover, "You Can't Hurry Love," and Gardiner finally got the crowd to dance with her. If Gardiner wants her audience to start dancing before the encore, the Ambitions might spend some time writing more diverse songs.

-- Rachel Beckman

Alice Despard at Warehouse Next Door

The black box that is the Warehouse Next Door's latest incarnation is an incongruous setting for Alice Despard's music, for her compositions come across like pastoral meditations, one minute bucolic, the next prodding. And if the handful of people who saw her short but sterling set at the Seventh Street NW space Friday night didn't get a summation of Despard's unjustly ignored two-decades-plus in the D.C. scene, they did witness a songwriter who has honed her craft masterfully. Every song felt utterly complete.

Using only a hollow-body electric guitar, the subdued percussion support of Evan Pollack and her voice, the former owner of Arlington's Galaxy Hut dissolved into her songs -- melding folky, chiming passages to introspective, edge-of-crestfallen lyrics. "Firmament," "Hold You Up" and "By the Way" might have sounded like standard country folk on the surface, but when the layers began to reveal themselves, there was a wisdom to her words, and an unrelenting tug to her chord changes that was nothing short of stately. A version of the Mekons' "Learning to Live on Your Own" bore her imprint as well, giving that cry of bleak resignation a hopeful urgency.

Despard's set was preceded by one from the resurrected Rambling Shadows, a quartet featuring Jay Moglia and Scott Wingo, the leaders of semi-legendary D.C. guitar-pop purveyors Crippled Pilgrims. Despard had Molina up to sing on her version of the Pilgrims' aching "Down Here," which chimed wonderfully, but the Shadows' new material snarled with a distinct garage-rock edge.

-- Patrick Foster

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