Lincoln Center impresario Viviana Benitez introduced Thursday night’s show by the Mighty Sparrow with a quote from a recent interview he’d given to Vivien Goldman. The octogenarian king of calypso had explained succinctly that singularity is no longer the order of the day, and that if there’s ever been a time for the people to unite, this is it.
That’s as political as he got. With his powerful, protean baritone as colorful as ever and his usual outrageous sense of humor, he led an exuberant, eight-piece New York backing unit through a set of classics from throughout his seventy-year career. Calypso and soca lyrics often have a powerful social awareness, but this show was packed mostly with scampering, irrepressibly devious, innuendo-driven dance tunes. It’s hard to imagine Bob Marley’s 1970s work, dancehall reggae toasters like Yellowman, or for that matter a lot of hip-hop, without Sparrow paving the way.
The brief Q&A before the show set the tone. With his signature blend of sagacity and deadpan wit, Sparrow was as funny when he deflected a question as when he was willing to offer an answer. “I remember your music being very sexual for that time,” a Caribbean woman a few decades younger asserted, before inquiring whether or not he writes his own songs. Sparrow didn’t answer, didn’t move a muscle, as chuckles broke out among the crowd. Later, asked if he had a favorite song, he declared he didn’t think he’d ever done one he didn’t like, which spoke volumes for the performance.
The night’s funniest number was Pussycat, with harmony singers Erica Smith and Rembert Block coyly punching in on the refrain “Afraid pussy bite me.” The song is all the more classic for being completely G-rated. Sparrow’s so afraid of this little kitty that he’s never going to touch pussy again – but wait, some pussy doesn’t have teeth. And by the way, who got the scissors to cut pussy’s whiskers?
The salsa-spiced Sparrow Dead was just as amusing in a completely different way, flipping the script on anyone who’d dare hate on a legend. Thinly veiled, suggestive references were everywhere, from the tongue-in-cheek Mr. Walker,, to the sardonic No Money No Love, to the thunderingly macho Congo Man. and finally the witheringly cynical, anti-imperialist 1956 hit Jean and Dinah. The whole massive knew the words and sang along lustily.
The band rose to the occasion, bouncing and bubbling. Pianist Phillip Nichols provided some lushly neoromantic solo intros along with a lot of driving, Cuban-influenced lines alongside lead guitarist Lane Steinberg,, acoustic guitarist Dave Foster, Louis Fouche on sax, Tom DeVito on drums and reggae legend Larry McDonald on percussion. The womens’ harmonies – Smith’s jazz nuance and megawatt smile contrasting with the more cabaret-influenced Block’s calm but brassy presence – raised the music’s steamy energy to tropical temperatures.
The Mighty Sparrow’s next New York appearance is at Joe’s Pub on Dec 7 at 7 PM; tix are $25. The mostly-weekly free concert series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues with a rare Tuesday show tomorrow night, Nov 26 at 7: 30 PM featuring Afro-Cuban pianist Dayramir González & Habana enTRANCé. Smith and Foster are also playing with one of their other projects, the Gershwin Brothers, opening for a concert performance of Block’s new opera at the Treehouse at 2A at 9 PM on Dec 8.