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Ain't Been Licked

Ranelin photo by Joe La Russo

DIANA ROSS

at the Pantages, November 8

A failed marriage, an arrest for drunk driving, dismal record sales and a flop Supremes reunion excursion — the last few years have been brutal on Diana Ross. But the L.A. stop on her small-venue tour showed her better than ever. Fit and glamorous (though she referred to herself as "an old broad" at one point), Ross performed for over two hours, combing from every phase of her 40-year career.

There were full renditions (no medleys) of Supremes tunes, RCA-era solo hits ("Mirror, Mirror"), the surprise inclusion of "Ease On Down the Road" and all the biggies — "Touch Me in the Morning," "Love Hangover," "Upside Down," "The Boss," the classic conjoining of "Theme From Mahogany" with "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough," etc. As she soaked in the crowd’s nightlong roars, Ross’ warmth and appreciation were palpable.

Highlighting a thematic thread of resilience ("I Ain’t Been Licked," "I Will Survive"), the evening’s biggest surprise was Ross’ voice. Her breathy, nasal vocals have long been met with scorn by rock critics, especially when held up against the instruments of Aretha, Chaka and Gladys. But the charismatic diva now has an emotional and experiential grit that elevates her above many such powerhouses. On a riveting version of the Four Tops’ "Reach Out (I’ll Be There)" — originally covered on her 1971 album, Surrender — she transformed the classic floor-stomper into a slow-burn testimonial that brought the crowd to their feet. A Lady Sings the Blues segment, complete with jeweled gardenias and sexy white gown, found the chanteuse leaning into the music, crouching to hit a note, and the resultant passion provided a startling revelation: The bug-eyed girl from the Brewster Projects has earned some serious jazz chops. And, of course, the hair was fucking insane.

—Ernest Hardy

 

FOURTH ANNUAL SHORTLIST CONCERT

at Avalon, November 15

The Shortlist Music Prize claims to recognize "artistic merit and creative integrity over sales" and highlight "influential emerging artists." The politely full Avalon witnesses four of this year’s nominees.

The opener, Nellie McKay, is intriguing and bizarre, charming and vaguely disturbing. In erupting pink fairy dress and Stepford blond bouffant, she executes her crooning and keysmanship with venom, melancholy, wit and frustration. Constantly morphing, McKay visits Astrud Gilberto’s curvaceous Ipanema breeze, Fiona Apple’s panda-eyed jazz and cartoon Dollywood country amid vaudeville frenzies and runaway roller coasters of haunted-carnival kitsch. Equal parts Cyndi Lauper and psycho secretary, she unleashes classical flurries and breathlessly busy, quasi-rapped passages of poetry both comic and cutting. Though her bite is intermittent, McKay’s mark stays for days.

Dizzee Rascal, the unintelligible Brit rapper who won the U.K.’s similar Mercury Prize last year, is neither dour nor dazzling. With a matching baggy-jeaned sidekick and a charisma-free DJ, Dizzee underwhelms; more doppel-gangsta than as-advertised innovator, he renders his rhymes irrelevant with a bickering, bulbous timbre. He gets some hands in the air, but we just don’t care.

Eagles of Death Metal are a pathetic spectacle who wouldn’t have a prayer if one of their two drummers wasn’t QOTSA main man Josh Homme. Heavy metal’s potential for ironic humor is hardly news, and this embarrassing in-joke shouldn’t be forced upon the innocent.

Brooklyn’s self-consciously smarty-arty TV on the Radio scoop tonight’s prize after arriving accompanied by rampant word-of-mouth rep. Dapper vocalist Tunde Adebimpe shimmies like a preacher in a speakeasy through TVOTR’s kaleidoscope of after-hours soul-rock, movie-soundtrack suavity, Bad Brains–y punk, gospel elation and electronic modulation, all glinting with Chia Man guitarist Kyp Malone’s icicle falsetto. Removed from the heat of press-powered flattery, though, TVOTR’s something-for-everyone stylistic soup isn’t so tasty.

—Paul Rogers

 

PHIL RANELIN, NATE MORGAN, DAVID ORNETTE CHERRY

at Westminster Presbyterian Church, November 19

The occasion was a tribute to Hampton Hawes, and it’s always nice, if weird, to see someone like this freethinking bop pianist glorified by the city with his own honorary Day — 27 years after, at age 48, he ended a lifetime of neglect and imprisonment. Though a number of tonight’s performers knew Hawes, only a brief demonstration toward the end made a specific connection. Regardless, here in the church where Hawes’ father had led the congregation, the spirit was felt.

David Ornette Cherry, son of avant ambassador Don Cherry, opened with a chain of meditative solo piano expressions. Cherry rolled like a big river, unfolding generous whorls, clustery dissonances, bluesy humoresques and celestial glissandos that recalled Horace Tapscott, Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk and Alice Coltrane. An inspiring devotional experience amid the hymnals and the scent of spent perfume.

Nate Morgan mastered the chimey piano with his quick, sensitive touch, laying on a taste of his new Journey Into Nigritia — soul elevation, a hint of Latin, a flavor of Tyner. One of our most complete keysmen, Morgan shrugged into loose interaction with bassist Ryan Cross (inventive solo) and drummer Michael Stephans (rattlesome swing), and the folks in the pews made some noise.

Artist-in-residence Phil Ranelin loped up to take a solo spin on trombone; his clean technique and sweet tone eased us through an impressionistic improvisation that included genuflections to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen." Gathering Morgan, Cross and Stephans around him to lilt peace and revolution from his exceptional new Inspiration, he demonstrated that you don’t need a big group if the material’s this strong. And when Ranelin phased into shivery slide vibrations — only a trombone can do that. We heard the Word. Amen.

—Greg Burk