SHAKEN & STIRRED
October 10, 2009
By ROBERT BIESELIN,
WHO: Pink Martini
WHAT: Multilingual pop-infused classical/Latin/jazz.
WHEN: 9 tonight.
WHERE: Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., Manhattan. 212-840-2824 or the-townhall-nyc.org.
HOW MUCH: $35 and $45.
In many ways, America views Texas the same way Europe views America: It's too big and too backwards with too many guns and too little tolerance.
The home of supersized executions and super-serious high school football games, George W. Bush and rogue border militias, Texas isn't the type of place most Americans would expect to attract the progressive, platinum blonde composer of a multilingual, genre-hopping mini-orchestra.
And yet Thomas M. Lauderdale, the colorful mastermind behind Pink Martini, positively loves the "misunderstood" Lone Star State.
"Texas gets a bad rap, but I love it," he said during a recent phone interview. "My favorite city, outside of Portland [Ore.], is San Antonio."
During Pink Martini's current tour — which will stop by Town Hall tonight — the band of 13 (give or take a few) is playing eight, count 'em, eight shows in Texas — as many as San Francisco, New York and Portland combined.
And in a (weird, weird) way, it kinda makes sense.
For starters, you have to take a look at the origins of the state and the band, neither of which are much like they were when they were first founded.
As you may remember from history class, Texas was part of Mexico, then its own republic, then bought/stolen by the United States amid a ton of fighting.
Pink Martini, as you may (but probably don't) know, had a similarly strange start (granted with more oddity and less fighting) back in 1994.
Lauderdale, after graduating from Harvard, was working as political activist in his adopted home of Portland when he remembered the 1988 Pee-Wee Herman Christmas Special (featuring Oprah, Magic Johnson, Cher, Little Richard et al.) and decided to use one of the show's more peculiar acts to aid his pet project.
"I saw the Del Rubio Triplets, these three elderly guitarists in miniskirts … and had the idea of bringing [the women] to these small concerts and use them to tell people to vote no [on Oregon's proposition to outlaw homosexuality]."
A week later, he created Pink Martini to open for the sisters during a larger fund-raiser. What started as a joke ("It was basically me running around town in cocktail dresses singing 'I Dream of Jeannie,' ") eventually morphed into a full band whose multicultural interests spawned a genre-bending sound as diverse as Tex-Mex cuisine.
So, just as you can get a rib-eye with guacamole and nachos in a border-town saloon, you can get music with a bossa nova, classical or swing twist on a Pink Martini album.
"People, in general, don't know what to categorize us as," said Lauderdale who describes the band as sounding like a "house band for the United Nations in the 1960s." "We're not really world music or classical or jazz and hopefully we avoid the lounge classification. We're somewhere in between."
As freeing as it might seem to be, unpredictable variety can also be confusing for fans — especially if they try picking through Pink Martini's four studio albums on a song-by-song basis.
The new album, "Splendor in the Grass" (named for a Wordsworth poem, not the Elia Kazan film), features songs in English, Italian, Spanish and French; two songs directly inspired by Franz Schubert's "Fantasy in F Minor," and a multilingual cover of "Sing" (of "Sesame Street" fame) directly following a swinging barbershop quartet-meets-ragtime number about a gallivanting cop in drag.
"Hopefully people listen to an album as a whole," he said of "Splendor," which features Pink Martini-regular China Forbes singing lead on most tracks. "I think the band is better represented by the entire body of work since there's so much crossing of genres and decades and styles and languages."
Sounds a lot like Texas, doesn't it? (You can't just hit San Antonio or Austin and claim to understand Houston or any of the towns along the Rio Grande.)
To get what Lauderdale calls the "Texas experience," you have to do a little open-minded inquiring (i.e. find the culture and charm past the guns and intolerance), and then, who knows, maybe you'll see Texas (and Pink Martini) as he does: as the new America.
"I think Pink Martini, in a way, represents the wide spread of what America really is, not what people think of: 'American Idol,' Cabbage Patch Kids or gas-guzzling cars," he said. "I like to think of it as the America I love, which comprises people and cultures of every nation."
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