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An Anthem Reclaimed

NONA GAYE at the NBA All-Star Weekend, Staples Center, February 14

“I was right there, standing on the court,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told me matter-of-factly. If you too were at the Forum to see Marvin Gaye sing the national anthem at 1983’s NBA All-Star Game, you truly experienced a music revolution. That performance was a catalyst for the pairing of popular music and national sporting events; this is the first time since then that the game has been back in Los Angeles.

The weekend’s entertainment included American Idol winner Ruben Studdard, the Beach Boys, Nelly Furtado, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé and OutKast, but it was Marvin Gaye’s daughter Nona performing a Valentine’s Day “duet” with her late father (à la Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” pairing with Nat) who stole the show. The 19,000-plus capacity crowd rose to their feet as Nona transformed the Francis Scott Key standby into a soulful psalm — the backing drum track and organ felt like a Motown classic more than a patriotic testament. Marvin on a video screen (wearing his oversize round sunglasses and a suit) and Nona (in suit and scarf) intertwined melismas, stirring the audience to whistles and hollers. When they arrived at “the land of the free,” both with clenched fists in the air, you had to remember another famous sports moment — Mexico ’68, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists. It was beautiful.

Brad Pye Jr., a black community veteran from the L.A. Watts Times standing to my right, turned and said, “She did her father proud.” And the younger black brother in a Darryl Dawkins throwback jersey on my other side yelled out, “That’s what’s going on!” Amen.

CECILIA BARTOLI at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, February 8

You can’t compare the audience reaction at a Cecilia Bartoli recital to anything else in the classical-music world. A better analogy would be a slightly more restrained version of Super Bowl mania, or maybe the worshipful hysteria that accompanied the Beatles at their height. All the 38-year-old Italian mezzo has to do is walk onstage for the cheers, whoops and “Bravas!” to start. Responding with laughter, raised eyebrows and hand on heart, Bartoli immediately established a rapport at her Los Angeles Opera recital that went beyond appreciation, or respect, or even mere musical satisfaction. As one audience member screamed somewhere around Bartoli’s fourth encore, “WE LOVE YOU!” Just another example of why Cecilia was the recipient, at last year’s Grammys, of the coveted FM Listeners Award, making her classical music’s most popular star.

Bartoli conquered not only hearts but the notorious acoustical challenges of the Chandler with a delightful selection by her favorite composers, Rossini and Bellini (“I’m clearly a child of the 18th century,” she once remarked. “Rossini and Bellini are absolutely the limit.”), plus some Donizetti, and a sparkling dose of French songs and arias by Bizet, Berlioz, Delibes and Pauline Viardot. Throughout, Bartoli displayed her trademark supercoloratura (who can trill faster or more cheerfully?), along with her talent for comedy. Vocal effects like yodels and insect imitations, comic facial expressions, and saucy body movements and gestures had the audience roaring. At the same time, she could reduce us to tears with Rossini’s “L’Esule,” a lament of longing that she virtually sighed rather than sang, or Handel’s exquisite “Lascia Chi’Io Pianga,” which, through her rich, soulful interpretation, ascended from aria into prayer. Oh yes: special kudos to her accompanist, Sergio Ciomei, whose delicacy and intuitive nuances made for a perfect collaboration. (Mary Beth Crain)


Astrid Hadad
(Photo by Pancho Gilardi)

ASTRID HADAD at REDCAT, February 11

Licking the blade of her knife and singing, Astrid Hadad wore a fake black leather hoop skirt with matching bustier and sombrero, her look and voice fusing mariachi with kink. Coined by Hadad as “heavy nopal,” this style is aptly described by UCLA Live’s David Sefton as “Diamanda [Galás] with jokes.” A diva in the true sense, Hadad takes Mexican and Latin music (ranchera, bolero, rumba, fado) and grinds it up with her rich, deep vocal expression. Also trained as an actress, the onetime telenovela star uses fantastical costumes (folkloric hoop skirts serve as both dress and set) to format the presentation into a show-tunes-meet-performance-art format.

Singing in Spanish, narrating in broken English, Hadad moved from Latin dance to faux ballet, even some headbanging — but the moments of truth were the tableaux vivants. In “Le Petit Mort,” she was strapped into a standing mattress into which her negligee was integrated; in a sexy nightie, under luxurious rose-colored covers, with her hair spilling upward, she wailed sweetly. If you squinted, it was almost realistic. As living art, she radicalized the famed Diego Rivera painting The Flower Seller, carrying two-dimensional calla lilies and dressed as a revolutionary. Another gown and headdress featured glowing sacred hearts with eyeballs; finally, using foldout party decorations as wings and a halo, she worked the iconography of Mexico. But the USA didn’t escape without a few well-placed jabs: As the Statue of Liberty, she struck the torch-bearing pose and declared, “Visit the United States before the United States visits you!” Songs were also dedicated to the president and the governor (and a particularly tragic ballad to Arnold’s wife!). The hardest-working woman in show biz finished the encore with a self-contained fiesta via a sombrero pre-loaded with confetti, with which she showered the stage. (Ron Athey)

 

HEAD AUTOMATICA at Spaceland, January 29

With the ’70s and ’80s strip-mined by the retro-hounds, it was inevitable that they’d cast a greedy eye over the early ’90s for their next stylistic crutch. And so it is with Head Automatica — a much-hyped side project featuring Glassjaw front man Daryl Palumbo and lauded DJ Dan the Automator among a seven-piece ensemble — who at times recall the EMF/Jesus Jones British mini-invasion (more of a long weekend, actually) of 1991. Check the sub–Robert Smith pathos of the vocals, and an optimistic, state-of-the-art-at-the-time techno trundling of the flagship toon “Young Hollywood.” But for the most part, Head Automatica are Electric Six lite: regular mentions of “disco” and “getting the party started,” sharp suits and Flying V guitars, but lacking the Six’s head-rush of camp enthusiasm and fuck-you single-mindedness.

The diminutive Palumbo — in leather blazer and stubble shadow, looking like some dodgy geezer flogging fake Tags — is a formidable focal point. As with Glassjaw, he remonstrates from the stage lip with considerable command and connection, though he shackles himself tonight with occasional guitar forays (redundant with two axes already aboard). When not recalling the Mef’s James Atkin or JJ’s Mike Edwards, Palumbo revisits his once-removed trademark: the Mike Patton I’m-about-to-heave yap that many a nu-metal numskull craves yet few perfect. But, hey, Palumbo can sing, and relishes it too, and we’ll settle for that.

Though tormented by technical troubles, Head Automatica’s set keeps a stoked but early-set-sober Spaceland crowd politely satisfied (there’s literally only one shout for an encore). Closing with Squeeze’s meticulously constructed “Pulling Mussels From a Shell,” they depressingly demonstrate that even apparently indestructible tunes can fall into disrepair in the hands of Philistines. Head Automatica are mildly charming, tuneful and trendy, but have yet to banish that “other band” aimlessness. (Paul Rogers)

DEEP PURPLE, THIN LIZZY at the Wiltern LG, February 14

Sure, it was just a gimmick, but playing the entirety of the monumental 1972 Machine Head was a damn fearless way for Deep Purple to stack the past up against the present. Hasn’t been the same band for ages — without Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar and now without Jon Lord’s organ. When the Steve Morse–Don Airey lineup plowed into “Highway Star,” though, the Wiltern balcony literally shuddered. Kinda scary in more ways than one: This is a mature unit that nails its riffs while writhing with demonic inevitability. Morse inhabits the essences of “Maybe I’m a Leo,” “Space Truckin’” and “Smoke on the Water” in ways Blackmore never really wanted to, so 34-year bassist Roger Glover (taut and pushing the rhythm) and original drummer Ian Paice (thrashing the backbeat) are more locked-in than ever.

Deep Purple has sopped up plenty of singer Ian Gillan’s soul-man juice over the last decade, a bent that showed up in such plucks from the current Bananas as the dynamic, jammy “I Got Your Number” and the churn-and-pound “House of Pain,” a legit contender for greatest-hits status. Morse’s “Contact Lost,” an instrumental tribute to a Purple fan killed on the space shuttle Columbia, beautifully bridged tenuous electricity and humanity. And throughout, Airey’s keyboards took classical and jazz touches out of the academy and straight to the people with razor simplicity.

Those who listen with ears rather than memory can stop worrying about this kind of thing being a revival act, as the 2004 edition of Thin Lizzy also demonstrates. The idea of Lizzy without singer-bassist Phil Lynott (RIP) seems ridiculous until you start to appreciate crowd-milking front man John Sykes, best known as the hot-handed guitarist on the first Whitesnake album. Imitative, yes. Boring, no. (Greg Burk)



(Photo by Jacques Beneith)

MALACHI FAVORS,
19something–2004

He was a great bass improviser, but other facts about Malachi Favors are less clear. The age at which he died of pancreatic cancer in Chicago on January 30 is uncertain. No consensus spelling is even accepted for the third name he adopted: Variants include Maghostus, Maghostut and others, and the “ghost” part is telling. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who knew and performed with him for many years — most recently in the Golden Quartet with Jack DeJohnette and Anthony Davis — describes him as “a quiet man, but his quietness was very loud.” Though small in stature, Favors served as sergeant at arms in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Smith says that if someone disturbed a meeting, “He would walk across the room, and it would be resolved.”

 

Authority without physicality also marked the music of Favors, who once surprised Smith by playing at an especially high level while fasting. A perennial member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Favors possessed a selfless genius for appropriateness. His choice for the AEC’s Selected Recordings is a space-conscious 20-minute suite in which the bass is virtually absent for the first seven minutes; he was just as ready, though, to take over a song, supporting and directing the Ensemble’s improvisations like an unpredictably undulating rubber floor. His every note was a world, three-dimensional at least.

Favors learned from Wilbur Ware and honed his art alongside Andrew Hill, Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard before meeting Muhal Richard Abrams and joining the AACM in the late ’60s. He is the second member of the Art Ensemble to pass, following Lester Bowie, who died in 1999. In the liner notes to the AEC’s Tribute to Lester, Favors remembers an argument with Bowie over what to call their art. They finally agreed on “Great Black Music.”

—Greg Burk


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