Pink Martini, Fireworks, & Samba

Seeing Pink Martini in concert typically raises a lot of questions. Why are there fourteen people performing? Why is there a harp and a set of bongos on stage at the same time? What language is the vocalist singing in? Could the pianist look any more similar to a leprechaun? The short explanation would be that the band is from Portland, Oregon. For anyone who has been there, this answer will suffice but for those who haven’t, I should explain.

Pink Martini is a self described “mini-orchestra” from the Pacific Northwest. Thomas Lauderdale, the leprechaunesque pianist, joined forces with China Forbes at Harvard University where the two would practice music. Upon graduation, Thomas returned to his native Portland and in three years later in 1994, he contacted China to invite her to join his fledgling group known as Pink Martini.

Since then, the group has released four full-length studio albums each with a distinct sound. Unique isn’t a strong enough word. One song may be a French lullaby, the next a Mariachi jam followed by an ancient Japanese hymn. With this in mind, I’m tempted to put them under the heading of World music but each track is so different I don’t think that would be fair. The only consistency in their music is the variety. While I’ve never seen any proof, I have a suspicion that Thomas and China are striving to be the first group to record in every language. Until that is realized, I’ll continue to admire China for singing in English, French, Croatian, Greek, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian (to name a few).

Seeing the group live is every bit as confounding as listening to their music. For example, the recent show I attended at the Hollywood Bowl featured a plethora of unannounced guest vocalists including NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, burgeoning playwright Rufus Wainwright Jr., aging film star Jane Powell and the cast of Sesame Street. Writing this, it sounds ridiculous. What kind of group can even hope for a cohesive performance when it has to balance an 81 year old soprano, the cast of a children’s TV show and the entire Hollywood Bowl Orchestra? Somehow, Pink Martini did it, and did it with ease. Sesame Street was a crowd-favorite. When they arrived onstage, the entire collection of performers broke into a medley of kids tunes. If you had a childhood in the last forty years – and those odds are pretty good – you’d have recognized plenty of pieces: C is for Cookie, Manamana, Sing a Song, and One of These Things is Not Like the Other.

The crowd – 18,000 strong – soaked up every minute of the performance like musical sponges. Of course, inhibitions on this particular night were surely lowered judging by the number of wine bottles being passed around. Taking advantage of the venue’s relaxed policy towards picnics, concert-goers all around unpacked a seemingly endless host of confections. Wine and cheese were the order of the day but Pink Martini’s sophistication was offset by plenty of Hostess snacky cakes, Doritos and cheap beer. I felt like a fool for showing up empty handed. I took a mental note for next time.

In a perfect finish, the band (along with their guests) signed off with a swinging Samba beat as fireworks overhead took to the sky. On an uncomfortable wooden bench in the hills of Hollywood, I took in the spectacle and thought how I could sum up the experience in a concert review. As a wall of sparklers rained on the performers below, the word came to me: eclectic.

Listen for Pink Martini on the Young Nastyman and Wonderboy Show, Wednesday nights at 9.

– Tom “Wonderboy” Roth