Savannah Music Festival review: Pink Martini

I can’t remember exactly when Bobby Zarem turned me on to Pink Martini, but it must have been four or five years ago when he was still living in New York but coming regularly back to Savannah, his hometown. I never became as much of a fanatic for the eclectic Portland-based band as Bobby did — few could! — but I was absolutely thrilled when word came a couple months ago that they were booked for the Savannah Music Festival.

Bobby, who of course has now moved back to Savannah, became such good friends with the band that founder Thomas Lauderdale, whose piano flourishes are as entertaining to watch as to hear, even mentioned Bobby from the stage a couple of times — and dedicated the final encore to him in the packed Lucas Theatre.

And that wasn’t the only interesting Savannah connection of the night. Lead singer China Forbes noted that her late father had been been close from his teenage years with Tom Oxnard, who was also in the audience that night.

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

When they lived in Portland, current Savannah residents Andrew and Ann Hartzell were friendly with several members of Pink Martini, including percussionist Brian Lavern Davis, whom they toured around town on Thursday afternoon. (Along with Pink Martini’s Derek Reith, Brian and Andrew were co-founders of the band The Lions of Batucada, a Rio-style percussion ensemble.)

And guitarist Dan Faehnle gave a shout out to the maker of his guitar — Bob Benedetto, owner of Savannah’s Benedetto Guitars. Faehnle called Bob one of the best guitar makers in the world.

If all those connections didn’t provide a particularly intimate backdrop to Pink Martini’s bravura appearance, a local Turkish couple were especially animated joining the band on stage for the traditional song “Ãœsküdar’a giderken”. (I know that’s part of the Pink Martini set pretty often, but I can’t imagine it being any better than what we saw and heard Thursday.)

Saturday’s beautifully staged and perfectly timed show (about 130 minutes including an intermission) seemed to excite Pink Martini novices as much as diehard fans — a tribute to the band’s musicianship and approachability, despite the wide array of international influences.

Lauderdale and Forbes added just the right amount of narrative and banter to the two sets to bring their personalities alive. I had no idea that the infectious “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler” was based on a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, or that there had been a lawsuit about its use. (No worries, Forbes explained: “At the end of the lawsuit, they asked us for our autographs.”)

And I sure didn’t know that the beautiful “Song of the Black Lizard” was drawn from a sordid Japanese novel that Yukio Mishima had adapted for the stage and which was later turned into a film.

I’m sure it’s the first time that Mishima and Apollinaire have been mentioned on the same stage in Savannah.

I especially enjoyed “And Then You’re Gone” (Schubert meets “Hit the Road Jack” meets Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” meets Cuba 1952, according to Lauderdale), the hilarious and so true “Hey Eugene”, “Lilly”, and “Hang on Little Tomato”, but it’s really hard to pick winners from a show that was so strong from beginning to end.

One of the more ambitious songs was a duet of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days are Here Again” by Forbes and Timothy Nishimoto — a performance first done in 1963 by Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland:

Pink Martini’s appearance was the Savannah Music Festival at its best: bringing world-class talent for a Savannah premiere.