Before walking into Campbell Hall for a performance by Oregon-based Pink Martini, I knew very little about them. Having only heard one of their songs and having liked it, I was hoping for more of the same. By the end of the show, I went out of it half impressed and half confused.
My first look at the stage had me worried, with instruments ranging from a harp to a drum set; where would the musicians fit in? In retrospect, the cluttered stage is a fitting background for this group – which features twelve musicians plus lead singer China Forbes. That’s an impressive number of people, but what is more impressive is that they mesh well. Pink Martini’s band members are all of diverse backgrounds, both personal and educational, making the band’s performances eclectic, to say the least.
The eclectic feel is both their strength and, regrettably, their weakness. They draw on several different cultures and styles for their beats and sing in different languages from French, Spanish and Italian to Japanese. It is quite remarkable that they are able to perform in these languages and give a taste of world music to their audiences, but in the end you have to ask, “Just what does Pink Martini want to be?”
Ultimately, the answer lies in that ambiguity. The band’s main draw is the fact that it is difficult to classify their music as any one particular genre. And while their penchant for dabbling in so many styles can be perplexing, it has become the defining feature of their act.
The great thing about seeing Pink Martini live is that they are actually better than on their albums, quite unlike most solo artists and bands. They excel particularly at big band sounds and jazzy tunes like “Donde Estas, Yolanda?” and “Sympathique,” the highlights of the evening. Another beautiful piece is “Let’s Never Stop Falling In Love,” which has been featured on the soundtrack to the film “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” Forbes’ vocals are smooth and sultry, and when she writes her own lyrics, they can be quite humorous, especially when they are about men she meets at parties and never sees again. Adding to the playfulness of the show is pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale, often interjecting tidbits of information between songs, including how a Hunt’s ketchup advertisement inspired the song “Hang on Little Tomato” or how they continue to perform their “illegal” version of a certain French song. Lauderdale looks a little out of place with his strikingly blond hair and black-rimmed glasses among the older members of the group, but he is a fantastic showman.
Pink Martini may be for mature tastes in music, but this ensemble has talented musicians and singers and brings a unique world flavor to their music. You may be a little frustrated trying to figure out just what kind of music you’re listening to, but you’ll thoroughly enjoy it anyway. Most of their songs inspire audiences to take to the dance floor, and while Pink Martini encourages it, the venues usually do not. Interestingly, this has incited mild rioting in past performances – I guess they’re just that good. From French jazz to Cuban rhythms, Pink Martini puts on a show that will make you want to grab a gorgeous stranger and dance the night away.