York County Prison The Season 12 'American Idol' performance finale was intense…
- Posted on Jul 8th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
Unusual? Maybe. But not entirely, given the setting: On stage at the Hollywood Bowl in front of a delighted crowd of more than 12,000 people, most of them dancing along. This sort of tableau is exactly the kind of thing the people at the Bowl have tried to make routine for a decade now since founding the World Festival, an annual series put on in association with noted non-commercial radio station KCRW-FM in Santa Monica. The dancing fools this night were the evening's headliners: Brazilian great Gilberto Gil -- co-founder with Caetano Veloso and others of the '60s tropicalista movement, jailed and exiled as a dissident and now for the last five years his government's culture czar -- and Devendra Banhart -- the young prince of what has been described variously as Freak Folk and New Weird (or Wyrd) America, though truth be told he reaches well beyond those labels.
"The idea is that music is global," says Laura Connelly, director of presentations for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the creator of this series, who before the show said that her wish was that the two would join together on stage. "Most musicians are worldly in their outlook. We wanted to find ways to expose these connections and also bring artists together, not necessarily that there is a direct correlation, not that so-and-so is definitely influenced by X. But we just start with this huge wish list and say, 'Wouldn't it be great to combine...' "
So Banhart coming to help Gil and his band on the night's closing number, 'Nos Barracos da Cidade,' was a serious treat. But frankly, despite the surface strangeness, the connection this night was pretty direct. Banhart spent part of his childhood in Venezuela, where is mother is from, and has often showed inspiration from South American music, particularly on several tracks of his most recent album, 2007's 'Smoky Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.'
And it wasn't the only connection he was part of this night. The other side of his musical spectrum was also represented in the opening act, with Mike Heron -- co-founder of Scotland's '60s psychedelic folkies the Incredible String Band, and therefore a founder of the whole psychedelic folk movement that Banhart references liberally in his music -- guested with the opening act, San Diego band the Autumn Leaf (which at the moment included Heron's daughter Georgia in its shifting lineup).
Banhart seemed to take seriously his role as fulcrum between two iconic artists separated by geography and culture, but clearly shown here, not by spirit. His set started with a few very playful numbers (the opening 'Little Yellow Spider' in particular) that played very well off of Heron's performance of ISB favorites 'Air,' a prayerful 'Worlds They Rise and Fall' and fittingly continuity-themed 'The Circle Is Unbroken.' From there, Banhart edged toward Gil's pan-Latinisms with 'Samba Vexillographica' and his churning closer, 'Carmensita.' Gil for his part took those elements and explored even further. Threading through his set was a mini history lesson on Brazilian music (remember, he is the Minister of Culture), from pre-contact dances to African and European infusions to bossa nova and forró to his own contributions of psychedelic and progressive Tropicalismo sounds. Even the over-heard standard 'The Girl From Ipanema' (in the original Portuguese as 'Garota de Ipanema') took a fresh turn, and his two Bob Marley tributes ('Three Little Birds' as 'Three Little Siros' and the herb ode 'Kaya') were given Gil-ian twists, notably his sudden and seemingly spontaneous vocal yelps, punctuating songs like a tropical bird call.
Of course, the dots aren't always so easy to connect in these shows. It's hard to say how or even if, for example, soul-rock mischief-makers Gnarls Barkley will intersect with Senegal mbalax star Fallou Dieng and San Francisco art-rocksters Deerhoof in a show July 27. Sometimes even ones that the producers thought would work great failed to click.
"I remember a few years ago we did Nigerian Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti and [hip-hop innovator] Mos Def with Daara J, the Senegalese hip-hop band," says Connelly, citing the potential of that line-up to show an Afrobeat/hip-hop overlap. "The intention was definitely good. We had wanted to bring in Mos Def, and on paper it made sense. But he ended up doing a jazz set and we were scratching out heads a little after that one."
And sometimes there is some public puzzlement over some of the headliners placed under a "world music" banner.
"Yes, how did Lauryn Hill fit into a world music festival?" Connelly recalls people musing. "How does Willie Nelson fit in a world music festival? When we first had our electronica night with Paul Oakenfold, people were probably scratching their heads. But it's that global music thing, music from different parts of the world that have a unique flavor."
Part of this, of course, is economic necessity. The Bowl starts from a position of strength, its history and gorgeous setting enough to guarantee a solid base of season subscribers. But it's still a big place, with nearly 18,000 seats -- and the subscribers, with broad and, yes, often mainstream tastes, have to be satisfied enough to want to renew next season. The KCRW input helps a lot with getting name-value, and especially up-and-coming acts on the bills. The circumstances sets it apart from what has become a very fertile market for globally minded summer programming around the Los Angeles area, with regular shows of top artists from African, Latin American and other traditions at the California Plaza's Grand Performances series, the Skirball Cultural Center, the Getty Museum and the Santa Monica Pier's Twilight Dance concerts -- all of those free to the public.
But part of the point behind this whole series is to do things that are not typical and not expected, for any setting let alone the Hollywood Bowl. Connelly points to the very first one as among her favorite examples:
"That was a phenomenal concert," she says. "Carlinhos Brown. Up until 1999, it had been predominantly light and breezy bossa nova at the Bowl when they had things like that. Carlinhos enters in this George Clinton fake fur hooded robe and sunglasses and a Catholic incense burner, waving a steel pan in front of him making noise, and in a canvas skirt and long dreads and plays all this really cool, percussive Brazilian music out audience had never heard and it blew their minds. Even the crew, which can be a bunch of jaded stage hands who have seen it all, were, 'Wow! We love him!' The Hollywood Bowl had never seen anything like this."