The National Symphony Orchestra came up with an ideal formula for a pops program Thursday night at the Kennedy Center: conductor Marvin Hamlisch, two of the best voices on Broadway and a program devoted to the music of Cole Porter. But there was more: Topping the list of guest artists was pianist and singer Bobby Short, whose presence overshadowed somewhat the excellent work of soprano Jodi Benson and tenor Sal Viviano.
If any one person was an icon of American pop music before the arrival of rock, it is Short. At 80 (his birthday was Wednesday and the NSO audience sang "Happy Birthday" to him), he still makes his piano shape a popular tune with a unique lyricism. His voice has lost some of the warm, husky tone it had when we were all younger. It was quite edgy at the beginning of the evening, but it grew stronger as one number followed another, and by the end of the program he sounded as though he could go on for hours. And, of course, from beginning to end, he was a model of style, in phrasing, inflection of a melodic line and particularly in his careful, loving treatment of words, an especially important consideration when dealing with Porter, who wrote his own words, often very cleverly.
Benson and Viviano sounded as though they had carefully studied Short's work; their singing had many of the same virtues -- with the added advantage of younger voices -- in solos and a show-stopping duet on "Let's Do It."
Two choruses made surprise appearances: the Fairfax Choral Society to close the evening and the Yale Alumni Glee Club, which came running out when Hamlisch mentioned Porter's years at the university.
They sang two pieces he had composed at Yale: "Bingo" and "Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow Wow Wow." This segment, Hamlisch remarked, "shows you that composers can mature and get better."
There will be a repeat performance tonight.
-- Joseph McLellan
Most of the Trashcan Sinatras' like-minded contemporaries (the Housemartins, the Lilac Time) and Scottish-pop predecessors (Orange Juice, the Bluebells, Aztec Camera) are now mostly arcane entries in music history. The Glasgow group seemed headed for the same fate when it disappeared from view after its third album was released in 1996. But now the Trashcans have climbed out of the cut-out bin (clearing contractual limbo with their bankrupt former record label helped) and released "Weightlifting," a charming new record.
The group has continued its unlikely reemergence by undertaking its first extensive U.S. tour in 11 years, gently updating its subtle pop charms for a small but dedicated gathering of fans at the 9:30 club Thursday night.
To say the five Trashcans (with opening act Roddy Hart contributing keyboards and guitar) played with finesse would be hardly to say a thing: Singer Francis Reader worked his hands compulsively as he sang, as if doing air-sculpture, and sang as though afraid to bruise the gentle melodies of such songs as "It's a Miracle" and "What Women Do to Men." The guitars of Paul Livingston and John Douglas glistened more than they chimed.
The Trashcans' mellow approach probably left fans of the group's earlier, more driving style wanting. And though there were some flashbacks to the group's early-'90s salad days -- namely the ringing hooks of "Hayfever" and "Easy Read" -- the chiming new ones "Got Carried Away" and "Weightlifting" were the show's high points, marking the Trashcans' return as an unlikely but impressive one.
-- Patrick Foster
Minus the Bear
It wasn't a bear, of course, but something was missing when Minus the Bear played Thursday night at the Black Cat. The Seattle quintet's sense of timing was a little off on several occasions, notably when singer-guitarist Jake Snider started playing a different song than everyone else. Snider griped occasionally that the audience wasn't moving enough, but maybe that's because the band provided only intermittent cause for locomotion.
Still, such songs as "Fine + 2 Pts." kicked into gear nicely, and even the less organized tunes demonstrated the group's eclectic method. Bassist Cory Murchy's funk bass lines drove the music, which was amiably disrupted by keyboardist Matt Bayles's electronic outbursts. Dave Knudson's finger-picked chiming patterns, often played well up the neck of his guitar, suggested West African "highlife" music. The combination was rather mannered, and clearly indebted to Washington's own Dismemberment Plan, yet potentially powerful. This particular set, however, offered more potential than fulfillment.
Paris Texas, which preceded Minus the Bear, was a little tighter when it was actually playing. Although individual songs manifested the kick of the Wisconsin quintet's recent album, "Like You Like an Arsonist," the 30-minute set lagged. Long breaks between songs, and Scott Sherpe's banal patter, sapped the momentum. When Sherpe sang such rabble-rousing lines as "Are you ready?," Nolan Treolo and Nicholas Zinkgraf's honed guitar lines responded in the affirmative. Overall, however, the band didn't seem to be at full alert.
-- Mark Jenkins