Review: Pops’ American Originals looks back a century

Steep Canyon Rangers
Steep Canyon Rangers stole the show at the Pops. Lee Snow, photo

The Cincinnati Pops’ American Originals concert on Friday was a trip down memory lane to America’s musical roots a century ago.

For Vol. 2 of his Americana project, Pops maestro John Morris Russell brought together an eclectic  group  of guests, ranging from the sensational bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers to the extraordinary singer and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Rhiannon Giddens.

Like the first edition, the show was recorded live in Music Hall for an album on the Pops’ Fanfare Cincinnati label by the Grammy-winning producer Elaine Martone and engineer Michael Bishop.

Unlike the first edition, most of the music was not that familiar to the Pops audience, who had braved the season’s first dip into the 20s to attend.  Yes, there were a few numbers by Irving Berlin, including a lush arrangement of “God Bless America” and the iconic “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the latter given a nasal rendition by blues singer Pokey LaFarge.

But this soundtrack mainly wove through America’s small towns and jazz clubs where one heard ragtime, blues and cakewalks, largely composed and performed by African-American musicians. The evening’s music included Eubie Blake, Shelton Brooks and W.C. Handy. For the finale, the audience sang along — and then walked out humming — Spencer Williams’ “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” possibly the biggest hit of 1916, one that was covered by Sophie Tucker.

The evening’s most electrifying music-making diverted from that theme, when the North Carolina bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers shook things up with a number of their own. “Auden’s Train” was written by fiddler Nicky Sanders, with lyrics by the group’s occasional collaborator Steve Martin.

It was a high-energy showstopper featuring Sanders, a kind of Paganini of bluegrass violin, who danced and stomped while he soared through a series of fantastic – and funny — improvisations. It earned the evening’s biggest cheers.

For the live recording, the orchestra sat behind the proscenium arch, surrounded by pole microphones. An old-timey recording sign lit up, and the audience was coached by Russell to provide, on cue, wild applause and “ambient silence.”

For whatever reason, the format was a little stiff. Russell gave minimal explanations about the music – after all, in recording sessions, time is money. But more context in these little-known gems would have helped listeners.

And for many numbers, the artists stood at microphones and used sheet music. That made it seem more like a studio session than a show, and there were times when the energy sagged.

Rihanna
Rhiannon Giddens Lee Snow, photo

That said, there were some truly entertaining moments. Giddens oozed personality in “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” the hit tune of Eubie Blake’s 1921 Broadway revue “Shuffle Along.” Her voice was warm, with gleaming top notes. Tap dancer Robyn Watson added electric rhythms to the spaces between the notes.

Giddens put her hands on her hips and a growl in her voice in “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” channeling Bessie Smith. The terrific arrangement by Julie Spangler included Paul Patterson on jazz violin, Spangler on piano and Matt Zory on bass. Later, Giddens delivered a stylish “Swing Along “ by Will Marion Cook, who wrote the first musical by an African-American on Broadway.

Russell and the Pops also gave a nod to Veterans Day by performing a world premiere. Peter Boyer’s “In the Cause of the Free” was a poignant, cinematic piece inspired by British poet Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen.” It began with somber drumming, chimes and distant fanfares and built to a stirring melody for solo trumpet. The beauty of that tune was only outshone by the silvery tone and seamless line displayed by principal trumpeter Robert Sullivan.

The new album will be released sometime next year.

The Pops concludes its show at 2 p.m. Sunday in Music Hall. Information: cincinnatipops.org.

 

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