Monday, July 07, 2008

A Night At The Elevator

Or, rather, half a night.

Readers who've been with me a couple of years know about Blaise Lawless, the painter with the best name in art, who lived here for a couple of years before giving up on Berlin and moving back to his home town, Boise, Idaho. While he was here his brother came to visit, and I gave him my Famous Walking Tour of the city. Earlier this year, that same brother contacted me about helping him out on a television series he was developing for cable, which is an ongoing project.

Anyway, earlier this week, he contacted me because an old friend from Boise was going to be performing here last night, and arranged for me to have a couple of tickets. I'd never heard of this guy, Curtis Stigers, which just shows how out of touch I've been. Turns out the guy's sold millions of records, and made the great Nick Lowe wealthy by the inclusion of his version of Nick's song "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding" on the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, which sold 17 million copies thanks to its star, Whitney Houston, butchering Dolly Parton.

Stigers was going to be a guest on a show which, I have to admit, didn't look like it was going to be much fun: an open-air "classics" show starring Till Brönner, Germany's latest gift to jazz lite. Also appearing would be a symphony orchestra from Rostock, Thomas Quasthoff and various others. On the one hand, I thought, it was dire. On the other, this Stigers guy sounded interesting -- the sound bites on his website weren't too bad -- and anyway, it was a free concert outdoors in the Gendarmenmarkt on what would likely be a nice Sunday evening. Now...who would be interested in going to such a thing?

Why, the Dancer, of course! I hadn't seen her in ages, and I knew she'd gone to a Quasthoff recital of Schubert lieder, so maybe this would be up her alley. And so it proved to be. We made plans to meet at the boxoffice where the freebies were, I exchanged a couple of e-mails with Stigers, and that was that.

Once we found the right line, getting in was a breeze, but the box office wasn't a model of German efficiency (or, rather, it was). Our seats were in the back, raised up on bleachers, with the steps of the Konzerthaus forming the stage on which the orchestra would sit. To the right, the Till Brönner Band, augmented by some studio musicians, were seated. Around the edges stood VIP pavillions for the guests of the sponsors: Opel, Radeberger Beer, the Berliner Morgenpost, Wall advertising.

Initially, it was as grim as I'd figured: after an introduction by an MC who appeared to have a piece of dead sheep on his head, the orchestra came on and played a medley of tunes -- elevator music. Then an obsequious young man came on and babbled about what a wonderful evening we were about to have, how happy he was that all these special guests were here -- wait a minute! Was this Till Brönner himself? Yup, it was. -- and then called up the first guests, the New York Voices, one of those vocal ensembles who allow people to think that what they perform is jazz because they hit weird chords from time to time -- with, it must be granted, extreme accuracy, and equally extreme irrelevance.

It got a little better, when, after an almost interminable introduction by Brönner, a little man named Paul Kuhn sat down at the piano and knocked out a good version of "Route 66" marred only by Brönner's trumpet-playing. Kuhn is 80, and a Berlin legend, although despite my five years at Jazz Radio, I'd never heard of him before. As for Brönner's soloing, it was a bunch of completely unoriginal ideas, performed virtuosically, as if the notes had been approved by some German Jazz Academy.

Then it was Stigers' turn. He came out wearing a tenor sax, which worried me, since singers and sax players tend not to inhabit he same body (well, except when it's Louis Jordan's), and, further worrying, was announced as performing a song by Tom Waits, not one of my favorite performers, to put it mildly. The song was slight, but Stigers has a superb voice, more suited to what I consider pop than what I consider jazz, perhaps, but capable of delivering this trifle with conviction and warmth. In the middle he took up the sax and blew a perfectly credible solo for a chorus, then sang the song out, ending with a short coda on the sax.

Next came a stubby little black guy who apparently lives here, whose name sounded like -- but couldn't have been -- Frank McCunt. He played a sentimental Donny Hathaway tune, "Ghetto Boy," accompanying himself on a Fender Rhodes, with lots of style but no particular content other than sugar. Then out came Quasthoff, who sat down (he's a thalidomide baby, which stunted his arms and legs, but oh boy not his voice) and first gave us "There's a Boat Leavin' Soon For New York" from Porgy and Bess, and then some piece of pop crap which showed off his instrument but made one question his taste. Brönner, introducing him, said he'd wanted to put him on the program, but it was a jazz program, and Quasthoff had assured him "I know jazz." Sadly, not.

Even more sadly, the New York Voices trotted out again to wreak violence on "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard." Mr. Simon, your attorneys may contact me: this is defamation of character, and I was a witness. But it got worse: apparently the pianist was also an arranger who has worked with Herbert Grönemeyer, who, the Dancer informed me, is Germany's richest artist. I guess it makes sense if this was anything to go by: the song was pure treacle, the arrangement smothered any hint of melody, and the audience went nuts afterwards.

Stigers came back to close out the first half with a rather audacious move: a jazzy version of "That's All Right, Mama," which also included some scat singing, some more judicious tenor-playing, and, of course, some trumpet from Brönner.

The minute the musicians started leaving the stage, the audience spilled out to eat overpriced Bratwurst, drink overpriced Radeberger, and look at Opels. The Dancer and I sat there, looking at the people who'd scored vantage points on the French Cathedral and the luxury apartment house nearby (and the open windows at the Hilton), and we were both thinking the same thought: who pays €69 a ticket for stuff like this? Not jazz fans: this is hardly jazz. Not classical fans: a bad weekend in Berlin has more classical content than we'd seen so far. Who were these well-dressed people -- several thousand of them -- who were seated below and around us? Some were no doubt guests of Opel, Wall, Radeberger, and so on, but clearly the vast majority had paid to get in. And what does this say about culture in Berlin?

We were still musing on this when something whipped past my face -- a bat! Looking up to see if there were more (as a long-time Austin resident who knows that each bat eats twenty times its body weight in insects every day or it starves to death, I've long been a bat fan) I saw only swallows. She caught me looking. "Thunderstorm," she said. "When the swallows fly low, a thunderstorm happens in an hour." It was certainly humid enough...

So, I said, do you want to stay? "NO!" she thundered. "There is no groove happening here. Every time something gets going, Brönner comes on and yaps and yaps and breaks the flow. I really like Stigers -- I wish we could just see him, and I really wish we could go backstage -- but this program is annoying me." I was actually relieved. I, too, would like to see Stigers do what he does with his own band, so I can figure out what he's trying to do, what his approach to the odd but appealing repertoire he's working with is. But I could certainly do without the rest of it. I found most of the crowd stuffy and way too bourgeois for my taste, too. So we left. I gave my re-entry ticket and my main ticket to some guy who asked nicely (although he then said "But I need two!") and we walked up Charlottenstr. past the stage door, where the orchestra guys were out in force enjoying their cigarette break.

Then the Dancer did something I couldn't have predicted. She turned back and said to them, "Good music, but shitty concert." "Wait," one guy said, "it's only getting started." "I'm sorry," she said, "but there's no movement to this, no groove. It stops and starts."

I'll admit it: I was a little embarrassed. I know a lot of professional musicians, not famous people, but working stiffs of both genders, and I know that most of these guys -- from Rostock, no less, out in the sticks -- were probably enjoying a not-very-taxing gig playing pap, in exchange for getting to dress up, get paid well, and play in a pretty lovely setting. They weren't responsible for Brönner's blather, for the low quality of the charts they were reading, or for the headliners they were backing up. It was a gig!

Ah, well. It made her feel better, and I'll never see those guys again. I talked with Stigers later and thanked him, and yeah, I'll go see him if we're ever in the same town.

And fortunately, if all goes well, my next live music should be a couple of gigs by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That, I'm sure I'll enjoy.


Anonymous said...

Ed, I had the sites of Mr. Stigers and the New York Voices open at the same time. I thought whatever I was listening to sounded quite nice till I realised there were two sets of music going at the same time. Maybe they could get together and perform over each other?

George said...

Sounds like a boring concert...

Hey, Ed, I was wondering if the Tour De France might affect your move; looks like the Tour passes close to Montepellier in the next week or so. Here's a site (for the channel that shows it here) with the map:

halfpear said...

You're gonna love the Chocolate Drops. Saw them get an entire tent of bluegrass lovers square dancing madly at Merlefest, completely amazing.

Ed Ward said...

George, I think the Tour may be why I had such trouble finding a hotel for next week. Dang, if I'd only considered that...

And halfpear, I won't be seeing a thing if their management doesn't get back to me. Been waiting a month...

Anonymous said...

I'm stunned by the amount of negativity in your post. If you're biased like you obviously were before you went to this concert, you can't open yourself for anything positive that might come your way. Even more sad that you received tickets for free and decided to dislike it before a note was played. That's ungrateful. Everyone has a right to his opinion and also the right not to like a concert and say so, and I won't go into details about all of your unqualified remarks about the artists, but some of your comments are beyond any reasonable critique. You're offending the people who paid for the concert AND like it.
When you decided not to like the concert, why did you go in the first place? Probably because you're having fun spreading around your negativity. Well done!