The greatest performer at the 9:30 club on Thursday was not Damian "Junior Gong" Marley, youngest child of Bob. It was the wiry Rasta who waved the old Ethiopian flag, featuring the Lion of Judah symbol, throughout the 100-minute concert. It didn't look like he had Popeye arms hiding under his long sleeves, but he must be eating his spinach to have kept that flag flying for so long.
The charismatic and energetic Marley, his dreadlocks reaching well past his waist, held his own with the scene-stealing Flagman, revving up the sold-out house with an animated mix of roots reggae and dancehall riddims.
After a hype-man visit and a warm-up instrumental by the slamming Empire Band, Marley launched into the strident "Confrontation" from his strong new CD, "Welcome to Jamrock." While the album's striking title track is the smash hit that pushed Marley to the fore of urban radio, the crowd knew many of the songs from Marley's previous CDs, including "It Was Written," "More Justice," "Stand a Chance" and "Where Is the Love." But the set was heavy on tunes from Junior Gong's latest, including "All Night," "Beautiful," "Hey Girl" and "Move!," which liberally samples Bob Marley's "Exodus." Of course, the place went nuts whenever Junior dipped into Pop's catalogue.
The closer, "Welcome to Jamrock," began as a dirge, befitting the tone set by Marley's lyrics chastising Jamaica's corrupt politicians and the sanitized image that foreigners are fed about the impoverished country and its stunning murder rate. Built on a liberal sample from Ini Kamoze's 1984 tune "World of Music," Marley and his brother Stephen have refashioned the riddim into one of the most powerful songs to come out of Jamaica.
Marley's raging live rendition merely reinforced that.
-- Christopher Porter
Bassist Stanley Clarke arrived on time for his performance at Blues Alley on Thursday night. Too bad the same couldn't be said for some of his trio's equipment. After a half-hour delay, the group, minus one of its amps, delivered a low-wattage performance that covered a lot of familiar territory -- acoustic and electric.
Mind you, even at reduced volume levels, Clarke's band is capable of making the tableware rattle in a small club. Playing electric bass, Clarke eased into the set with one of his best-known interpretations -- an alternately languid and syncopated version of Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." As the arrangement unfolded, it developed into an expansive showcase for Clarke's now-sly, now-finger-raking virtuosity and for his recent recruits: Russian-born, Israeli-bred keyboardist Ruslan Sirota and Los Angeles-based drummer Ronald Brunner.
In their early twenties, Sirota and Brunner served as quick-witted accompanists, soloists and foils throughout the truncated 70-minute performance. The opening set included a rhythmically slippery and thoroughly crowd-pleasing reprise of Clarke's signature fusion hit "School Days," an acoustic and comparatively sleek take on Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" and a version of "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)" that nearly produced a sleep-inducing lull until Brunner began to flex his muscle. Unfortunately, with a long line of late-show ticket holders waiting outside, Clarke didn't have much time to unveil new pieces, apart from the cheerfully orchestrated and season-appropriate "Toys." Chances are the trio will stretch out and amp up during the remainder of the engagement, which runs through Sunday.
-- Mike Joyce
Tribute to Harold Arlen
You would expect a performance called "Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Tribute to Harold Arlen" to feature (a) the BSO and (b) Arlen's music. Wrong on both counts.
Thursday night's concert at Strathmore Music Center should have been called "John Pizzarelli's Nightclub Act." Pizzarelli's stage-center quartet (Larry Fuller, piano; Martin Pizzarelli, bass; Tony Tedesco, drums) was so overmiked that Andrew Constantine and the 70-piece BSO could barely be heard in its backup role. For much of the evening, Constantine -- a conductor of real style and verve -- was reduced to standing, doing nothing, as the quartet played alone.
The music of Arlen (1905-1986; born Hyman Arluck) appeared only in the second half of the program. Arlen wrote some 400 songs, but "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" went unplayed. Pizzarelli offered fairly ordinary arrangements of "It's Only a Paper Moon" and "I've Got the World on a String," a good instrumental of "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and the famed "Over the Rainbow," sung without innocence or yearning.
As a singer, Pizzarelli is a pretty good guitarist. His playing is fast, furious and often creative, but his midrange voice is raspy and became off-pitch as the evening progressed. His frequent scat singing -- always with a pained expression -- didn't help Arlen's music or the first-half standards ("Pick Yourself Up," "Route 66," etc.).
Large, airy, blond-wood, smoke-free Strathmore is no crowded, smoky nightclub. Blue and red lights accomplished little. "Don't You See What Troubles Me?" wrote Arlen. "First You Have Me High (Then You Have Me Low)."
-- Mark J. Estren
"Iam a very fortunate old woman," declared soul singer Bettye LaVette at the State Theatre on Thursday night. "While the rumors of my demise have been circulating, I am back!" Indeed, LaVette showed no indication of her long absence from touring: Her animated performance belied her nearly 60 years of age as she strutted, gyrated and sashayed back and forth across the stage.
LaVette didn't always stay so active: A cover of Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" displayed her superb vocal control as she balanced ardent howls with moments of delicate restraint. She even dropped to sit cross-legged to croon the mellow "Just Say So." But most often, LaVette's singing style was dramatic.
Her throaty voice at times overpowered her understated band: An overly soulful interpretation of Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream" steamrolled over many of the subtle melodies of the original. But LaVette found her most powerful moment when she stood alone. She closed the show with an a cappella version of Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," delivering as much emotion in the pauses as in her pitch-perfect, expressive vocals.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Baritone Wolfgang Holzmair has a knack for ferreting out little known German art songs and presenting them in the most listener-friendly manner. His program at the Austrian Embassy on Thursday -- accompanied with a light touch and understated wit by pianist Russell Ryan -- unearthed some particularly rewarding rarities.
The three composers represented -- all Austrian refugees from Hitler who made new lives for themselves in the United States -- wrote music that hinted at other composers, but mostly spoke with unique voices. Songs by Franz Mittler (who became an arranger at Columbia Records) brought the occasional whiff of Kurt Weill, while possessing an off-the-cuff directness that well served texts by cartoonist Wilhelm Busch and political monologist Karl Krauss.
Like many of his fellow Hollywood film composers, Eric Zeisl also wrote concert works. Many of his Mahler-tinged songs on Holzmair's program featured restless, undulating accompaniments that lent words by Nietzsche, Eichendorff and Lessing (among others) an almost obsessive single-mindedness. Mittler and Zeisl followed in the footsteps of traditionally tonal predecessors, but neither came close to the complete embrace of 19th-century lyricism found in the lushly Brahmsian settings of Rilke by self-taught, part-time composer Robert Furstenthal -- reactionary, sure, but gorgeous.
Holzmair, with his warm amber sound, crystal-clear diction and almost conversationally natural way with phrasing, is the most engaging of lieder singers. His affection for this material was palpable, and his beautifully turned delivery was nearly flawless.
-- Joe Banno