Pink Martini brought fearless musical exploration to the Power Center


If you’re at a concert, and during the course of the evening, one of the performers says, “That last song was in Turkish, and this next song is in Armenian,” it’s a pretty sure bet you’re seeing world music super-group Pink Martini. (Lucky you!)

A sold-out crowd packed the Power Center on Tuesday night to see the 11-member, Oregon-based band, which filled the second slot in this year’s Ann Arbor Summer Festival main stage season after Diana Krall kicked things off last week.

Upon her first entrance, vocalist China Forbes put the (hot) pink in Pink Martini, wearing a voluminous, elegant fuschia gown and glittering platform shoes. The 10 male musicians surrounding her on stage, meanwhile, wore neutrally colored (but equally natty and contemporary) suits. The overall effect married the formality of the music industry’s past to the individuality of the present, reinforcing Pink Martini’s vibe: elegance, whimsy, and something I can only describe as “modern retro.”

Not coincidentally, this also defines the spirit of the group’s cosmopolitan (pun intended), globe-trotting musical tastes as well. Tuesday evening’s show, like Pink Martini’s many albums, featured songs performed in French, Armenian, Turkish, Japanese, Portuguese, and more, alongside tunes with English lyrics. Altogether, the evening made you feel as though you’d been transported back to a swanky, glamorous New York nightclub in the '20s or '30s, where a highly skilled, sophisticated, polished band provided impeccable music for those on the dance floor.

And for a couple of songs -- including “Flying Squirrel,” just before the two and a half hour show’s intermission -- attendees were invited on stage to dance behind the band. (Well over a dozen audience members accepted the invitation.)

One of the things that’s so enduringly captivating about Pink Martini is the group’s fearless, adventurous sense of musical exploration. They continue to demonstrate an intellectual curiosity about different cultures and languages, applying them to songs that Pink Martini members often write themselves; yet they also sidestep pretentiousness by conveying a charming sense of fun and wit, particularly between numbers. (During the encore, for instance, pianist Thomas Lauderdale asked Forbes to do her impression of a woman who starred in Snackmaster infomercials in the '90s, which cracked him up when they were friends in college. Forbes obliged -- and Lauderdale still obviously finds it hysterical.)

Early in the show, Lauderdale explained the origin of the group. Though he’d planned to pursue a career in Oregon politics and started down that path, he eventually got inspired to “bring a little ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ to political fundraising.” He’d initially hired an act (the Del Rubio Triplets) that he’d spotted on Pee-Wee Herman’s Christmas special to play at local events, but eventually, he “threw on a cocktail dress and started Pink Martini,” later inviting Forbes from New York to play with the group.

So Pink Martini’s founders are smart, funny, and crazy-talented, and their concerts always feel as though, for just one night, the people sitting at the cool kids’ table have cleared a spot just for you.

Tuesday night’s set-list included many tunes from Pink Martini’s latest album, Je Dis Oui!, including the delightfully fanciful “Butterfly Song” (one of my new favorites), “Ov Sirun Sirun” (an Armenian tune sung by percussionist Timothy Nishimoto), “Joli Garçon” (featured in the Isabelle Huppert film Souvenir), and “Serenade.”

But Forbes and company also drew several favorites from their eclectic back-catalog, opening the show with the seductive “Amado Mio” and the cheeky “Je Ne Veux Pas Travallier” -- a song (about wanting to smoke instead of work) that became a surprise hit in France. My favorite performances of the evening included PM’s slightly off-kilter, music box-like rendition of “Que Sera Sera” (though a classic, the song seems tailor-made for this ensemble), “Over the Valley” (a song Forbes’ son used to fall asleep to every night), “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love,” “Hang on Little Tomato,” and their biggest commercial hit, about a New York party-hookup gone hilariously wrong, “Hey Eugene.”

Forbes -- who changed into a navy blue gown for the show’s second half -- sings with seemingly effortless clarity and has a beautiful tone, with control (particularly where dynamics are concerned) to die for. But on several occasions throughout the evening, band members stepped center stage for their turn at the mic, including trombone player Robert Taylor (“She Was Too Good to Me”), percussionist Miguel Bernal (“Yo Te Quiero Siempre”), and Nishimoto, who charmingly delivered on irresistible ear candy like “Donde Estas Yolanda” and “Zundoko-Bushi.”

Though everyone in Pink Martini is a fantastic musician, you couldn’t help but wish, when the sublimely charismatic Forbes was away from the mic for a few songs in a row during the second half, that she’d return to center stage. And the suggestion for an audience-involving conga line during the encore’s closer, “Brazil,” seemed to fizzle before it ever really got started.

But fittingly, the evening generally resembled an actual pink martini: delicious, sweet, and so easy going down that you instantly find yourself wanting more.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.