Stephen Malkmus at Black Cat
Pick any of these descriptors for Stephen Malkmus's post-Pavement career: hit and miss, so-so, uneven; they're all apt. That half-good pattern holds for "Face the Truth," his latest solo disc, and it characterized the show that kicked off the record's support tour, too: a set at the Black Cat Saturday night that sputtered and stumbled, but saw the wry and wiry Malkmus gain his balance long enough to make it pretty entertaining.
Backed by the Jicks, a lithe trio that bends easily around its leader's crooked melodies, Malkmus has scheduled only a dozen or so U.S. shows for "Truth" -- perhaps because he recently became a father. First-night crustiness was evident, especially on the sour trills of such songs as "No More Shoes" and "Pencil Rot," whose involved patterns were more clunky than transporting. With former Pavement members Mark Ibold and Steve West watching from the side of the stage, Malkmus and the Jicks sounded best when they evoked a more mature version of those seminal lo-fi indie rockers: "Post-Paint Boy," "Jo-Jo's Jacket" and the chiming "Mama" were goosebumpy good, tingly reminders of Malkmus's genius gift for mid-tempo hooks.
But those runs eventually gave way to messy endings and some staggering set-closing jam sections and encores that occasionally bordered on dross. But as he left the stage during what may or may not have been a version of "I Love Rock and Roll," Malkmus hardly seemed concerned. After all, at least his half-bad set was half-great.
-- Patrick Foster
Kevin Mahogany at KC Jazz Club
Singer Kevin Mahogany's tribute to the late jazz balladeer and bandleader Billy Eckstine at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Saturday night began with a brief Sinatraesque disclaimer: Mahogany would be toasting Eckstine his way, with just piano and bass accompaniment.
The intimate setting seldom evoked memories of Eckstine's studio sessions, but it did offer Mahogany the chance to revisit a delightful collection of vintage ballads, blues and swing tunes. Among the former were "My Foolish Heart," "Serenade in Blue" and "I Apologize," songs well suited to Mahogany's rich baritone and articulate phrasing. A big man with an equally big voice, he seemed perfectly comfortable performing the lesser-known tunes, imbuing them with warmth and luster. Indeed, like Eckstine, who died in 1993, Mahogany can sustain a romantic mood so effortlessly it seems second nature to him.
When the tempo picked up -- on "Centerpiece," for example -- the performances occasionally brought to mind Eckstine's collaborations with the Count Basie band, thanks to the economical brand of swing favored by pianist Corey Allen and bassist Chuck Bergeron. Blues, in assorted shades, drew the loudest ovations and colorfully punctuated the sentimental refrains. Throughout the show -- part of the Kennedy Center ongoing series "A New America: The 1940s and the Arts" -- Mahogany's resourceful accompanists kept the cozy arrangements from sounding similar or underpowered.
-- Mike Joyce
George Benson at Merriweather
Singer-guitarist George Benson worked hard and played fast at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday night, when he headlined the 13th annual Capital Jazz Fest kickoff concert.
The three-day event is devoted to smooth jazz, the radio-friendly genre that Benson helped popularize three decades ago. The multiple Grammy winner's influences, though, are rooted in mainstream jazz, and over the years he's found ways to please just about everyone in concert at one point or another.
Fronting a sextet on Friday night, Benson kept the hits coming, from "Breezin' " and "This Masquerade" to the show's climactic pairing of "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway." Rarely pausing longer than the time it took to catch his breath, he also squeezed in a lot of Wes Montgomery-flavored guitar licks and occasionally embarked on a not-so-smooth jazz excursion. Among the latter was the vocalese classic "Moody's Mood for Love," featuring percussionist and singer Kenya Hathaway. Equally crowd-pleasing was Chaka Khan, though her opening set was poorly paced and jackhammer loud. The still-formidable R&B singer spent far too much time showcasing members of her ensemble -- the low point came when the backup vocalists formed a slow-moving conga line -- and performing songs drawn from the mediocre pop standards album she released last year. Spirited versions of "Tell Me Something Good" and "Ain't Nobody" helped, but the show often meandered along at a deafening pitch.
-- Mike Joyce