A Soulful Coda for This Year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival
This year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival has been one of the best ever, and the past few years have set a high standard. Sunday’s concluding show was Americana roots music, an annual tradition that goes back decades. The evening began with the impassioned, intense New York debut by a-cappella gospel trio the Como Mamas. If you were there, that was Ester Mae Smith with her raw but minutely nuanced, gravelly alto stage right, chirpy mezzo-soprano Della Daniels in the center and her sister, Angela Taylor, with her full, ripe, modulated alto to her left. The three women make Como, Mississippi’s Mt. Mariah Church their musical home, where their most recent Daptone album was recorded.
Their style of gospel has deep roots that sprang up here but ultimately look back to Africa: fans of Malian desert rock might be surprised to hear melodies much the same coming from these voices, and vice versa. It signifies like mad and transcends any specific Christian meaning – although the trio made clear that they were there to uplift and leave their very personal message of dedication to their Savior. The Como Mamas sing this raw, hypnotically vamping music as the leaders of a community sing rather than a concert, and they got plenty of clapping and a little singing out of the crowd. Smith led the group most of the time through labyrinthine polyrhythms punctuated by joyous shouts, poinpoint harmony and counterpoint as sophisticated as any classical composition. The subtext was crushing, especially in I Knew It Was the Blood, where the Crucifixion is depicted as the lynching that it truly was. Several of the other songs worked just as well in a secular context: the good God in this music is a standin for a man who isn’t cruel – or isn’t about to be sold off, or killed. Each of the group has her own distinctive style: Smith with the occasional rapidfire melisma, delivered with the same spine-tingling inflections every time; Daniels with her split-second, staccato timing and Taylor with her sometimes imploring, sometimes comforting resonance. They put to shame anyone who might get their idea of how to sing gospel from American Idol.
Motown co-writers Eddie and Brian Holland were next on the bill, along with a longtime piano sideman from their Detroit studio who backed them on brief excerpts from their Sixties pop classics when they weren’t being interviewed by the producer of a Motown-flavored musical. Tunesmith/sound engineer Brian kept very quiet, but his singer brother was game to fondly and wryly recall some of the events surrounding the songs. There wasn’t a lot of insight shed into how they were made, underscored by the fact that wordsmithing was never the Holland/Dozier/Holland brain trust’s strong suit. Eddie Holland seemed most proud of how New York producers, with their big multitrack studios, began to imitate the sound that he and the legendary Funk Brothers band created in a cramped Detroit garage basement.
Allen Toussaint, who has a new album recorded during his solo residency at Joe’s Pub last year due out from Rounder this fall, was next, playing elegant, rippling solo piano and sounding much younger than his 74 years. His glistening chords give away his classical inclinations; as a connoisseur of New Orleans piano, there’s no one more knowledgeable. When Henry Butler came on to vamp through a single cameo while Toussaint hurled Mardi Gras regalia into the crowd (including a football, which Toussaint sent on an impressive thirty-yard spiral), it was anticlimactic. Toussaint opened with There’s a Party Going On , entertained the crowd with bouncy versions of Yes We Can Can and Sneaking Sally Through the Alley along with a long medley of early 60s soul-pop hits. He showed off a dry, insightful wit with a tongue-in-cheek yuppie travelogue possibly titled Whatever Happened to Rock n Roll as well as a droll tribute to New York. He brought his hits What Do You Want the Girl to Do and Southern Nights back to their roots, with purist blues chops and lingering, summery, Debussy-esque atmospherics that had nothing to do with the Glenn Campbell mallstore radio hit. After a long romp that made boogie-woogie out of classical themes, Toussaint invited the crowd to join him on a singalong of Arlo Guthrie’s City of New Orleans: “C’mon,” he grinned, “All white folks know this one.” By now, it was past nine, headliner Bobby Rush was nowhere in sight and the storm clouds loomed closer and closer – and much as it would have been fun to stick around for the whole show, having spent the previous two nights in the park here, it was time to beat the rain. What an amazing three weeks it’s been out back in Damrosch Park!