Monday, January 22, 2007

Ramsey Lewis Trio & WPAS Gospel Choir

From the opening bars of "Wade in the Water" to the closing strains of "Oh, Happy Day," Friday night at Strathmore sometimes seemed more like Sunday morning at church. And never more so than when the Ramsey Lewis Trio was accompanied by the Washington Performing Arts Society Men, Women and Children of the Gospel Mass Choir.

Early on Lewis noted that the concert, inspired by his recent gospel-jazz album, "With One Voice," reminded him of how his life in music had come full circle. He began playing piano in church when he just 9 years old, and now, "62 years later," he was back at it, albeit this time on the road and in splendid company. In addition to the choir, under the direction of Stanley J. Thurston, Lewis collaborated with his longtime band mates -- bassist Larry Gray and drummer Leon Joyce Jr. -- whose quick reflexes were tested throughout evening. Indeed, Lewis was in a restless mood at the keyboard, introducing curious segues ("The In Crowd" morphed into the Jimmy Reed hit "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" at one point), rhapsodic improvisations and sudden shifts in tempo and dynamics. His affection for pop ballads was evident, but the trio never gravitated far from Lewis's patented and still-engaging blend of jazz, R&B, blues and gospel traditions.

It's a pity the choir wasn't showcased more often during the program. Stretching from wing to wing, the acclaimed ensemble infused "Pass Me Not" and other songs that appear on "With One Voice" with transcendent vocal power and deeply spiritual yearning.

-- Mike Joyce

The Dears at the 9:30 Club

The Dears may be adored by critics, but their fans are still in the woodwork. The Montreal group's largely stunning performance at the 9:30 club Saturday -- combined with the recently released "Gang of Losers" album, which is as radio-friendly as the six-piece is likely to ever get -- suggests that it could be time for this bud to bloom.

The core member of the Dears' mutable lineup has been Murray Lightburn, a singer-guitarist with Neko Case-ian vocals that are gorgeous and pure. He frequently soared over his group's moody, orchestral rock but by no means overshadowed it. For 80 minutes the band swirled tightly through complex, unorthodox arrangements of songs that seem set to mellow before they explode into a thrilling, guitar-driven racket.

The Dears made the mistake of front-loading the set with their best material, but what terrific material it was: Highlights included the Western-style "Whites Only Party" and the jaw-dropping "22: The Death of All Romance," a duet between Lightburn and his wife, keyboardist Natalia Yanchak; the melancholy number meandered and loped, but slightly spacey effects added an eerie quality to the spare, repetitive lyrics.

Lightburn introduced the song by telling the story of meeting Yanchak and calling this time "his happily ever after." And then he tried to help someone else along that path, stopping to turn the house lights on as an audience member proposed to his girlfriend.

-- Tricia Olszewski

Phil Vassar at Rams Head

A little silliness can spice up a performance, as country music star Phil Vassar proved Thursday night at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.

The Lynchburg, Va., native played two concerts, both of which had sold out more than a month in advance. His goofiness made for a fun 90 minutes -- except when it clashed with his craft. At one point, he took out a harmonica and played the first notes of Billy Joel's "Piano Man." But before he could sing the opening line, he either got distracted or simply changed his mind. Its replacement? Riffs on "Play That Funky Music" and "Love Shack."

Once Vassar committed to a song, though, he delivered it with the sincerity his lyrics demand. He played one of his biggest hits, 2000's "Just Another Day in Paradise," a celebration of the mundane aspects of life, like broken washing machines and sour milk. He also dusted off two of his best songs, neither of which received much commercial attention when they were released: "Amazing Grace" and "Black and Whites." The former is about a young man sneaking into his girlfriend's bedroom through the window; the latter is Vassar's love song to his piano.

It didn't seem that he'd planned to gift his audience with these two gems. He played whatever the crowd yelled out to him, like the world's most muscular jukebox (a maroon T-shirt could barely contain his athletic physique). "Now what?" he yelled when he was done with a song. "This is fun!" And it was a fun, if scatterbrained, kind of night.

-- Rachel Beckman

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