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Nikka Costa: The world’s greatest redheaded soul singer

An opinionated take on the week in live music, Oct. 24-30

Gig of the Week

Nikka Costa
(Varsity Theater, Thursday, Oct. 30, 8 p.m., $20 in advance, $23 day of show)

Nikka Costa is nobody’s idea of an underdog. A show-biz kid who’s the goddaughter of Frank Sinatra and the flesh-and-blood child of Sinatra’s producer, Don Costa, she’s been afforded insider perqs ever since she opened for Don Ho at the age of 5. As a grownup, the now-36-year-old Costa has nibbled at the edges of pop cultural renown.

“Like a Feather,” a single from her first non-teenybopper disc seven years ago, was used in a Tommy Hilfiger ad and made a name for producer Mark Ronson, who went on to helm Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough, “Back in Black.” Costa also put a cover of Blondie’s “Call Me” on the Zoolander soundtrack. She’s been managed by American Idol man Randy Jackson, had the finest session cats — like drummer Questlove of the Roots, bassist Pino Palladino and keyboardist Jon Brion, not to mention stars like Lenny Kravitz — play on her albums. The result? Well, she’s big in Australia, Japan and parts of Europe.

Sounds pathetic, eh? Well, the crazy kicker is that Costa is a gorgeous redhead who can really sing. How all this hasn’t made her the flavor of the month on one at least one of the past six or seven calendars is extremely baffling. By now I don’t expect it to happen, even though her just-released “Pebble to a Pearl” on the newly resurrected Stax label is easily the most satisfying record she’s ever done. Here is the lead single, “Stuck to You”:

Neo-Stax is an ideal context for Costa, who can ramp up a shiny wail to deliver radio-ready glitz, but exposes herself most effectively amid old-school, dusky-blue soul grooves. There’s organ and gentle wah-wah guitar and a smattering of horns, of course, for a Stax sound dialed back a notch, toward the mixes (also made in Memphis) that Willie Mitchell laced up for Al Green. When the arrangements get busy, it’s in the vein of Stevie Wonder or Prince instead of rock. Costa finesses it all with a creative flair that reveals her versatility, phrasing clenched and urgent like Tina Turner, drawling choruses like Bonnie Raitt, and scooching up the scale with sass a la Chaka Khan. Here she is combining all three on a medley of “Keep Wanting More” from the new disc and “Feather.”

Even when she was touring behind less coherent material than “Pearl,” Costa always delivered the goods live by ratcheting up the intensity, the dividend of honing an onstage persona nearly all her life. By the way, her famous father succumbed to a heart attack when she was 10 and they were working on her second record together; despite some commercial setbacks, she’s never stopped trying to mint good records. So maybe there’s some underdog there after all.

Young Punk Christians in Costumes, Thrashing to Sweet Bubblegum Music

Family Force 5
(Station 4, Friday, Oct. 24, 5:30 p.m., $14)

Maintaining this daft theme of back-handed recommendations, I must confess that my favorite band (among the multitude) when the Vans Warped Tour stopped at Canterbury this summer was FF5, this incredibly cheesy crew of “blood brothers” from Atlanta. They dress in superhero garb (and encourage their fans to do the same), sport a 760-pound drum machine, and crank out a blend of adenoidal, Beastie Boys style hip-hop, ’80s rock hooks, and hedonistic but clean-enough-for-Jesus party-narratives anthems that have drawn a sizable Christian audience who aren’t afraid of mosh pits. The music, though highly derivative, is catchy as, eh, heck. Check this live date from Oregon two months ago: Station 4 is known as a venue for hardcore rockers, which only adds to the potential spectacle of this suppertime, all-ages gig. 

‘The modern day composer refuses to die!’ — Edgar Varese

Schneider and Upshaw with the SPCO
(Ordway Center, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 24-25, 8 p.m., $11-$59)

Skrowaczewski Conducts Kupiec and the Minnesota Orchestra
(Orchestra Hall, Thursday Oct. 30 through Saturday, Nov. 1, 11 a.m. Thursday, $21-$55, 8 p.m. Fri-Sat, $25-$83)

That Varese quote, frequently cited by the late Frank Zappa in interviews and forums and on album covers, is especially resonant this week, as both the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra play for guest conductors wielding the baton over their own compositions.  Tonight and tomorrow Maria Schneider leads soprano Dawn Upshaw and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in a five-movement work based around the poetry of Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The commission was instigated by Upshaw and is Schneider’s first composition for chamber or soprano (she’s won Grammys for her jazz orchestration). MinnPost’s Pamela Espeland provides more depth here on this beguiling high-wire act.

Later in the week, spry Stanislaw Skrowaczewski returns for the 49th consecutive year to conduct at least one series performance of the Minnesota Orchestra, the organization he guided as music director from 1960-79. The well-balanced program leads off with Skrowaczewski’s own “Music at Night,” taken from his 1949 ballet “Ugo et Parisina,” and featuring alto saxophone. Then featured pianist Ewa Kupiec (like Skrowaczewski a native of Poland) will tackle composer Frederic Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” one of the few works he wrote and played in Poland before leaving for Paris in his early 20s, never to return. The hoary crowd-pleaser, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” by Strauss, also known as the theme for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” will close out the program.

No middle ground

Stanley Jordan Trio
(Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 27-28, $35 at 7 p.m., $25 at 9:30 p.m.)

Celine Dion
(Target Center, Thursday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m., $49.50-$187)

There’s no so-so when it comes to Jordan and Dion: Either you’re spellbound by the spectacle, the sheer tsunami of their talent, or you suspect it to be hammy gimmickry. Put me in the latter camp.

Jordan invented an entire new way of playing guitar with his fretboard finger-touch, or “tapping,” methodology during the 1980s, striking down on a string with a single hand rather than sideways with two, enabling him to move at dizzying speed with warm, fluid tonality that never cut too deeply. It was the musical equivalent of being flailed with feathers. That wasn’t enough for Jordan, who now plays guitar and piano simultaneously. Yes, it is very impressive; it sounds like an accomplished duo at play. But after a few listens, like any parlor trick, it feels a little staid once the novelty wears off. I guess I prefer my duets with two brains. (Here’s Jordan playing two guitars at once, if not guitar and piano.)

Dion is the archetypal American Idol (even if she is from Canada), ready to bring down her sledgehammer vocals on any stray, hapless notes that haven’t already been wrung out and hung out to dry. Celine is boffo with a capital BOFFO. Wrapping up a five-year stint of sold-out shows in Vegas — her urban soul mate — she’s embarking on her “Taking Chances” tour and leaving nothing to chance. Target Center upgraded its entire acoustic system to better render her vocal thunder. She’s won over 1,000 awards. She is the biggest-selling female artist of all time. So, if you know good taste when you smell it and want to ride with a winner, pick up a ducat for Dion and shove the stub in your scrapbook. The heirs will be grateful.

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