notes from the Savannah Music Festival

As I write this, we’re 10 days into the Savannah Music Festival, with a stellar lineup ahead for the final week.

I had visions of writing a number of individual reviews by now, but work commitments and the cascade of the SMF itself have kept intervening. But I’ve still got lots of notes (if not lots of photos — the festival discourages most photography, although I did snag shots here and there for our Instagram), so here comes a big post with fragmentary reflections on the shows I’ve seen so far, in chronological order. (I also wrote a little about three of these shows in my latest Unplugged column in Do Savannah.)

Cameron Carpenter at the Lucas Theatre

If organist Cameron Carpenter had been alive in the Middle Ages, he might have been an alchemist.

Or, more likely, he would have been an organist. (Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Carpenter was alive during the Middle Ages — I can’t think of any performer who is a better candidate for vampire-like reinvention century after century.)

Carpenter said from the stage that he sees the organ as “the auditory equivalent of looking down a hallway” because the instrument has been for many centuries “at the vanguard of advanced human thought.”

The organ encompasses whole worlds for Carpenter: it’s “a musical city” and “an analogy for the universe.” And it’s also a puzzle and “a camp instrument” that captures a disproportionate number of gay musicians who might be drawn to the “quest for certainty” inherent in mastering the organ.

I could listen to Carpenter talk all day, but the show was obviously dominated not by talk but by the kind of stirring renditions of classical works that have propelled him to fame. At his 2013 SMF appearance, we could only see a video projection of Carpenter because he was confined to the fixed organ at Christ Church Episcopal on Johnson Square, but now his International Touring Organ is a reality — so organ and organist can take center stage, where they belong.

The setlist included works by Schubert (“Der Erlkönig” was a particular highlight, I thought), Tchaikovsky, Bach, Wagner (I think?), and, among others, Carpenter himself. He played his somewhat fanciful composition “Music for an Imaginary Film” near the end of the nearly two hour show.

Penetrating, powerful, occasionally mind-altering, visually spectacular — Carpenter’s show was a perfect way to kick off my own personal SMF, and I sure hope he comes back this way again. He fits oddly well into Savannah too, but that’s another story.

@cameronorganist takes a bow after super show @savannahmusicfestival @lucastheatre

A photo posted by Bill Dawers (@billdawers) on

Rokia Traoré at Trustees Theater

In his introduction of Rokia Traoré, SMF director Rob Gibson said that he had been trying to book the Malian rock star for the last decade — that’s quite a buildup — and then Traoré and her band came out and exceeded every expectation that I had of the show.

On her latest album Né So, Traoré tackles some serious themes. The title track’s lyrics translate in part to something like: “In 2014 another five million five hundred thousand people fled their homes/ Forced to seek refuge in towns and countries far from home.”

Despite the grim circumstances of some of the songs, the music is gloriously uplifting. The album’s closing track “Sé Dan” feels a little preachy if you’re listening to it around the house — what else can you expect with lyrics like “One world / One destiny / One aim / One thing to never forget: respect”? — but, live, the song was absolutely riveting. (Was I the only one who heard a few phrasings that sounded like early Laurie Anderson?)

“Amour” and “Beautiful Africa” were among the other standout numbers, but there were many songs that I didn’t know that just washed over and through me. The beauty of the songs was compounded by the beauty of Traoré, her band, and the staging.

Pink Martini at the Lucas Theatre

It seemed to me like Pink Martini had played the SMF just a couple of years ago, but it was way back in 2011. The preternaturally versatile and talented big band seemed happy to be back “in the land of Bobby Zarem” (as pianist Thomas Lauderdale said at the opening), and they soared and glided through some of their best known works as well as quite a few that were new to me.

There was Ravel’s “Bolero,” Rogers & Hart’s “She Was Too Good to Me,” “Hey Eugene,” “Sympathique (Je ne veux pas travailler),” “Hang On Little Tomato,” “Ocho Kandelikas,” and tons more.

I guess I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that Ari Shapiro of NPR performs occasionally with Pink Martini, but I was nevertheless sort of shocked when he came on stage. And Shapiro’s rich voice just fleshes out the music of the ridiculously talented band.

There were appreciations from the stage throughout the show for departing tour manager Howie Bierbaum, and somewhere along the line, Dan Faehnle noted that his guitar was made here in Savannah at Benedetto, and, for the finale, percussionist Brian Lavern Davis called his old friend and Savannah resident Andrew Hartzell to the stage to perform, and the night ended with entertaining and awkward conga in the audience.

Pink Martini at the end of their sold out show last night @savannahmusicfestival @lucastheatre amazing stuff

A photo posted by Bill Dawers (@billdawers) on

Andrew Bird at the Lucas Theatre

So you’re at an Andrew Bird show for the first time, and you think it’s kind of cool how easily he moves from plucking and bowing the violin to playing the guitar. He’s singing too, of course, with a beauty that only grows as the concert continues. And then he’s whistling — shit, dude can whistle. And then he starts laying down loops of all these elements, while continuing to play over the top of them and underneath them — oh, and why not hit that xylophone that’s been waiting patiently for some action?

And all of this while leading three new band members through both your old and your brand new songs. (I’d love to see this same show in a few weeks and see how different the band sounds and even looks on stage.)

There is no polite way to say it: What.The.Fuck.

I’ll confess to not really following Andrew Bird’s eclectic career, but I’ll be following it devotedly from here on out. The sheer versatility would feel gimmicky if the musical gymnastics weren’t creating such soulful, arresting songs — like “Three White Horses” from a few years ago, his stunning solo finale of “Weather Systems,” and pretty much everything off the new album Are You Serious.

Langhorne Slim & The Suffers at the Ships of the Sea North Garden

I love the North Garden at the Ships of the Sea Museum off MLK, but I have mixed feelings sometimes about seeing SMF shows there. On the one hand, it’s great to have a venue for more relaxed audiences and more dancing (which still doesn’t happen all that much), but on the other hand it seems like too often I end up near patrons who chatter like they’re at a cocktail party.

Nevertheless, Ships of the Sea has proven a great venue to see some up-and-coming performers who wouldn’t fit well at the more formal Morris Center and who would be unlikely to fill up Trustees or the Lucas.

So enter the double bill of Langhorne Slim & The Law and The Suffers, both of whom I’ve been wanting to see for a while.

“We lost my grandma May yesterday,” Langhorne Slim said at the top of his set, and then he told a story about the time she wanted him to play “Piano Man” for her. He said that he was sure that May had now been reunited with her partner Jack — the story had just the right amount of specificity and universality to make me think about people that I’ve lost.

“I’m not going to be playing any Billy Joel tonight,” he told the packed audience, before launching into the delicate “Airplane” and then allowing the set to build in energy and intensity.

Lovely version of “Airplane” from CBS This Morning:

By the end of the set, Langhorne Slim was wandering through the audience, encouraging folks to stand and dance — I’d love to see and photograph a longer show sometime.

The Suffers from Houston are battling all sorts of odds — and lead singer Kam Franklin acknowledged that fact near the end of the set. At what point do a group of competent adults abandon their good jobs and hit the road as a 9-piece band? For The Suffers, that moment came a couple of years ago, when “the opportunities started to outweigh the excuses.”

The Suffers finished their set — a melding of soul, R&B, and latin styles — with a great cover of The Specials.

Does Savannah want a sandwich? Seriously, never say no when someone offers you a sandwich.

sweet set by @langhorneslim @shipsofthesea @savannahmusicfestival

A photo posted by hissing lawns (@hissinglawns) on

Ballake Sissoko at the Morris Center

Ever since seeing Ballake Sissoko perform with cellist Vincent Segal a number of years ago at the Savannah Music Festival, I’ve been enthralled by the kora and the work of Sissoko himself.

Soft-spoken and still on stage, Sissoko seems at one with the Malian instrument, and it was wonderful to see a solo recital from at the Morris Center on Saturday afternoon. (Sissoko was performing later that night with Kassé Mady Diabaté, but I wasn’t able to make it.) I can catch a little French now and then, but I couldn’t translate his quiet remarks between songs so I’ll trust my companion who said that he referred at one point to some of the terrible violence right now in Mali.

In some ways, a set like this represents the SMF at its best: a world class performer, a show we’d rarely have a chance to see anywhere, excellent production values.

Ballake Sissoko acknowledges the @savannahmusicfestival audience after a sublime afternoon kora recital

A photo posted by hissing lawns (@hissinglawns) on

Charlie Musselwhite & the North Mississippi Allstars at the Ships of the Sea North Garden

There was another insanely talented double bill at the Ships of the Sea on Saturday: legendary blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite and the North Mississippi Allstars.

The North Mississippi Allstars — Luther and Cody Dickinson — first started playing great music 20 years ago, and in the meantime both brothers have forged diverse, successful careers. For their SMF set, the Allstars were joined by bassist and vocalist Danielle Nicole, who brought some great texture to songs like “Let It Roll.”

By the time Charlie Musselwhite was a few songs into his set, there was a big group of patrons dancing off stage left as the band ripped through pieces like “As the Crow Flies” and “River Hip Mama.”

For the final song, the Dickinson brothers joined in on guitar and washboard for “Rolling Down the Highway.”

A final note

I’ll be heading shortly to see the double bill of David Grisman and Del McCoury (are you kidding me?) and then later this week I’ll be checking out shows by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Drive-By Truckers, My Brightest Diamond, and others.

So presumably I’ll do another roundup like this once the festival is over.