Pink Martini, with special guest singer Storm Large
10 May 2012: State Theatre at Playhouse Square, Cleveland, Ohio
With original lead singer China Forbes sidelined since last summer with vocal cord surgery and taking a year off from the band to recover, Tracy and I had some trepidation heading in to a Forbes-less Pink Martini show. We’ve seen the band perform four times at four different venues – the Cleveland Museum of Art, the House of Blues, Severance Hall, and the Palace Theatre – with Forbes, each time to a packed house. This time around, the State Theatre was embarrassingly empty, adding to our anxiety. Then Storm Large took the stage, and we quickly realized we had nothing to worry about. While Large’s voice isn’t as full as Forbes’, it’s every bit as powerful.
The little orchestra started the night off with “Amado Mio” for a couple of reasons: First, to get the audience acclimated to Forbes’ absence by force-feeding a Pink Martini classic through Large’s presence. And, second, to illustrate just how good a fit Large is with the band. Never trying to replace Forbes, she left her own mark on every last song she fronted.
We had never heard of Large prior to finding out she was appearing with the band. (She’s a Portland, Oregon local just like bandleader/pianist Thomas Lauderdale, and was on a music reality TV show.) Regardless, Large’s personality is big enough to own the stage with her unique style.
Typical for a Pink Martini show, although there was a setlist, it was more of a recommendation than any sort of set-in-stone directive, and the troupe was guided by Lauderdale’s wonderfully entertaining song intros and backstories. Adding to the looseness of their approach was the fact this was the band’s first show of the current tour.
The first half, separated by an intermission, featured “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” presented in its original Spanish incarnation of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”, “Donde Estas, Yolanda?”, “Song of the Black Lizard”, and “The Flying Squirrel”. There were plenty of side trips to get the audience comfortable with Large’s somewhat naughty sensibilities and a wonderfully playful rendition of Splendor in the Grass’ “And Then You’re Gone”/”But Now I’m Back” with Timothy Nishimoto. The initial set ended with the frisky “Tuca Tuca”, where Large invited a flamboyant fan in electric yellow pattered pants on stage to dance with her, and Nishimoto and Large dueting on “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again”.
Returning for more after a wardrobe change during the break, the band kicked things off with Toledo-native guitarist Dan Faehnle’s “Ohayoo Ohio” composition before Large nailed Pink Martini standards like “Splendor in the Grass”, “Hang on Little Tomato”, and “Una Notte a Napoli”. The show closed with a two-song encore featuring the return of “Amado Mio” – this time in Russian! – and “Brasil”.
Other classics from the band’s repertoire were noticeably absent from the set, including “Sympathique” and “Hey Eugene”, but they weren’t necessarily missed or interpretations I wanted to hear. Those two songs in particular are so closely associated with Forbes that it was probably best to not try and shoehorn them into the show or Large’s style.
Trading Forbes’ reserved elegance for Large’s brassy personality worked beautifully in execution. She pulled off a great trick by filling in for the absent regular and staying true to the band, but putting her own mark on the proceedings. At the end of the day, I certainly look forward to seeing (and hearing) Forbes back out front, but I can’t help but hope that Pink Martini captures their temporary collaboration with Large in some way. They are just that good.