BESTS AND BUSTS
An opinionated take on the week in music, Sept. 12-18
Gig of the Week
(The Blue Nile, Saturday, Sept. 13, 10 p.m., $20)
Congolese vocalist Samba Mapangala and the various editions of his Orchestra Virunga pop the cork on musical champagne that’s surprisingly bubbly, sweet and tangy, that tickles your senses and inexorably goads you into doing uncharacteristically silly things like flinging your appendages all over the dance floor. Whether you call it soukous or African rumba, Mapangala’s style is dominated by the parallel mellifluous strains of the guitarists and his vocals — creating “mellifluidity,” a perfect description of his music that doesn’t appear in the dictionary. You can hear him here.
It is music descended from the great guitarist Franco and bandleader-vocalist Tabu Ley Rochereau. Like Rochereau, Mapangala ventured from the Congo to Kenya to stake his claim on the marketplace, scoring with “Malako” in the early ’80s. While Orchestra Virunga has undergone numerous personnel shifts since then, the musicians without fail have been top-notch. Recently resettled in the United States, Mapangala has an illuminating MySpace page, which includes a live performance from last summer in Oregon and a number of other useful tunes and links.
A grace note to the Mapangala gig is that it will be held at the Blue Nile, the Franklin Avenue restaurant and nightspot that frequently stages shows by local African and reggae groups, but rarely is able or willing to host an act of this magnitude. Although musty (its age and pervasive stucco doesn’t allow for much ventilation), the place has become a cornerstone for a West Bank neighborhood where African students and immigrants have established a cultural beachhead in this city. That role and past accessibility might draw neighborhood residents who might be intimidated by the longer history and wider variety of acts (and audiences) at the Cedar Cultural Center.
Chamber music run amok
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
(Ordway Center, Friday, Sept. 12, at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 13, at 8 p.m; $11-$59. And at Temple Israel Thursday, Sept. 18, 8 p.m., $10 and $25)
Leon Fleisher with the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota
(Ted Mann Concert Hall, Sunday, Sept. 14, 4 p.m., $15-$25)
I prefer chamber music without choral accompaniment and thus ignored last weekend’s kickoff of the SPCO’s 50th season featuring the Dale Warland Singers. But this weekend has Roberto Abbado conducting the last of Haydn’s 12 “London Symphonies,” aka the “Drum Roll,” preceded by a program of Stravinsky’s piano music featuring Peter Serkin — all reasons to get excited.
And on Thursday, the SPCO will jump the river to Temple Israel for the first of its concerts previewing the repertoire it will perform on its first Scandinavian tour in December. Thursday’s program includes Beethoven’s feisty Overture to Coriolan; Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 for Violin and Orchestra, featuring Nikolaj Znaider; and the U.S. premiere of Peteris Vasks’ Meditation for Violin and Orchestra — in short, the piquant mixture of standards and fresh material that has been the SPCO’s MO for quite some time now.
In between those SPCO programs, the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota will highlight the remarkable, ongoing comeback of Leon Fleisher, whose career was cut short for 35 years by a crippling neurological condition in his right hand that was finally quelled by botox injections. Now 80, Fleisher apparently (I haven’t heard him) plays with the sort of joy and capability that fittingly climaxes this marvelous story. He’ll perform Schubert, Ravel and Brahms with his duo partner and wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson.
Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet with Bela Fleck
(Guthrie Theater Proscenium, Monday, Sept. 15, 7:30 p.m., $29)
(The Cabooze, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 8:30 p.m., $18 in advance, $20 at the door)
How do you like your banjo music? The two venues involved here — the Guthrie and The Cabooze — dramatize the differences in these two ensembles. Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet boast one of the most versatile, compelling and renowned string pickers around in Bela Fleck, and marry old-timey authenticity with long-hair sophistication. Railroad Earth is more lumpen proletariat, with a proclivity for jam-band indulgence and a dash of Midwestern rock gusto. At the same time, Railroad Earth has recorded for the impeccable Sugar Hill label and laid down its last disc, “Amen Corner,” including this track, “Been Down This Road,” in an old farmhouse. Both shows are appealing. Forced to choose, I’d opt for Railroad Earth.
The obligatory raspberry
(Target Center, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 8 p.m., $37-$67)
You can’t subtitle a column “Bests and Busts” and offer up nothing but praise. But this week’s calendar offers up so few bands deserving of a publicized thumbs-down that I’m forced to shoot the proverbial fish in a barrel and lambaste Journey. As if the Journey fans haven’t heard enough ridicule in their lifetimes — perhaps only Styx, or Kansas, or Kenny Rogers is more universally disdained. With its gooey, cheesy power ballads and indigestible schlock anthems, Journey is the Philly-steak sandwich of arena-rock. That its main drawing card, vocalist Steve Perry, is no longer with the group may be a blessing in disguise, and in any event didn’t prevent the group from going out and trying to emulate the resurgent commercial drawing power of Rush.
If you’re looking for a silver lining, it is in the great opening act, Cheap Trick, which built a formidable career subtly lampooning acts just like Journey.