THROUGH THE LENS: The Colorful Roots Music of Pink Martini and Greensky Bluegrass
Pink Martini - Edmonds Center For the Arts, Edmonds, WA - Photo by Peter Dervin
This week’s column highlights two bands occupying vastly different spots on the roots music spectrum: Pink Martini’s polished, multicultural world music and Greensky Bluegrass’ imaginative version of bluegrass as played by a scruffy jam band. The inclusion of Pink Martini may rustle a few feathers, but I view the roots family as an inclusive one, continually expanding its boundaries. This music isn’t unique to any one country or to anyone’s particular sensibility. You can color me green, blue — and pink.
It is difficult to describe Pink Martini to the uninitiated, but I’ll try. The ensemble was formed in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, by pianist Thomas Lauderdale, primarily to provide a touch of sophistication and inclusive musical soundtracks for political fundraisers for civil rights, libraries, public broadcasting, education, and the like. However, things took a huge turn when, the following year, he invited a college friend, China Forbes, to join. Forbes was living on the opposite side of the country, in New York City, where she’d been writing songs and playing guitar in her own folk-rock project.
It was a fortuitous match. While they began writing songs together, their vision was much broader, resulting in their first album, 1997’s Sympathique. It was a hit in Europe, but garnered only word-of-mouth praise in the US. The album took me a bit by surprise. I was expecting droll, tongue-in-check cocktail music for hipsters. What I got was far deeper, an arresting take on the international music I had recently begun listening to.
During the past 25 years the band has grown from four musicians to 15 members who perform a spirited blend of Brazilian samba, 1930s Cuban dance, and Parisian café music, all with a world-music flair. Many members of the band share vocal duty, highlighted by Forbes’ ability to sing in 14 different languages. Pink Martini has performed its multilingual repertoire throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. They’ve released 10 albums, most of which include notable collaborations, including NPR’s Ari Shapiro, civil rights activist Kathleen Saadat (reviewed here), Rita Moreno, Japanese legends Saori Yuki and Hiroshi Wada, Rufus Wainwright, and most significant of all, Jimmy Scott.
It is safe to say no other band in the world draws from from so many musical traditions, roots and otherwise, from as many cultures. Their biggest hit was 2007’s “Hey Eugene,” written by Forbes based on an experience that could only have happened in New York. Once you’ve heard it, you cannot forget it.
Peter Dervin caught Pink Martini last week at Edmonds Center for the Arts in Edmonds, Washington. What sets his photos apart is his access to different parts of the venue, not just the photo pit, for the entire show. You get a sense of what the entire evening was like, not just a portion.
Also last week, at the other end of the country, and in a completely different vein, Eric Ring caught Greensky Bluegrass at The Met in Philadelphia. The venue, originally the historic Metropolitan Opera House, reopened in December 2018 after a complete renovation.
Formed a few years after Pink Martini, in 2000, and in a different part of the country, Michigan, Greensky Bluegrass’ music is distinctly different. I’ve heard it called as “not quite bluegrass.” They’ve released 11 albums, the most recent being Stress Dreams, which dropped last month and was reviewed by ND here.
In a 2019 interview with the website Jambands.com, they said they viewed themselves as “more of a brotherhood than a band.” That is evident in the live shows I’ve seen, as they deliver music with overtones of the Grateful Dead and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Be it a band or brotherhood, any group that features banjo, dobro, and mandolin at its core has a bluegrass foundation. Building on that they have a distinctive sound, even within jamband territory, and a loyal following.
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.