The Cincinnati Pops has always sounded great in a Rock context; its collaboration with Peter Frampton was a truly transcendent experience. But what happens when the Pops is paired with a handful of artists whose modus operandi is to strip everything down to the barest necessities and present their Folk/Swing/Bluegrass material in its most elemental form?
Since it’s the Pops, they play with beauty, restraint and abandon in equal measure and become near-perfect collaborators.
To begin the proceedings on Friday night — the first of three weekend concerts in the American Originals Vol. 2 program featuring guests Rhiannon Giddens, Pokey LaFarge and Steep Canyon Rangers — Pops conductor John Morris Russell took the stage and briefly explained that the evening's presentation would follow the format of its Vol. 1 predecessor by being both a concert and a recording session. But while Vol. 1 centered on the beloved catalog of composer Stephen Foster, Vol. 2 would present largely obscure songwriting figures, including Walter Donaldson, Eubie Blake, Shelton Brooks, James P. Johnson and others, as well shifting its timeframe to the post-World War I era.
As the recording light slowly went red like the blush of innocence, the Pops launched into the appropriately jaunty fanfare of James Reese Europe's "Hey There! (Hi There!)," which was quickly followed by the appearance of the first of the evening's four guest performers making their Cincinnati Pops debut, the Steep Canyon Rangers.
The Rangers got things heated up nicely with Walter Donaldson's "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?" Although the initial confluence of the Rangers' energetic Bluegrass stylings and the Pops' effervescent swing played off each other wonderfully, there were moments when the Pops slightly overwhelmed the delicacy of the band's mandolin/banjo/fiddle section, although they may in fact have been miked perfectly for the recording. In any event, each of their solos stood out spectacularly.
LaFarge didn't have any trouble holding his own with the Pops when he stepped up to the microphone for W.C. Handy's rolling "Memphis Blues," his distinctive nasal Americana croon rising above the orchestra's great Jazz arrangement of the Delta Blues classic. Then LaFarge strapped on his guitar, the Pops swelled up to meet him, and together they purred their way through a lovely rendition of "Prairie Lullaby," popularized by the great Jimmie Rodgers.
Finally, it was time for star attraction Giddens, a founding member of the renowned Carolina Chocolate Drops, now a solo artist in her own right and a recent winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” For her first number, Giddens aced a roof-raising version of Eubie Blake's "I'm Just Wild About Harry.” She was accompanied by gifted tap dancer Robyn Watson, who regularly performs with Giddens and was a tap instructor for the Broadway production Shuffle Along.
Giddens introduced the next tune, "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle," as one that soul singer Bessie Smith had put her stamp on. It was a soulfully smoldering version with an emotional and physically palpable Pops accompaniment. After Giddens left the stage to thunderous applause, the Pops cranked out an explosively joyous version of James P. Johnson's "Charleston," with Watson exhibiting her otherworldly tap chops.
The final two songs before intermission featured the Pops on their own in a tribute to Veterans Day weekend, first with the world debut of "In the Cause of the Free," a new work by composer Peter Boyer, who was in attendance. At the song's somber yet powerful conclusion, Boyer took the stage and added his personal applause to the Pops as a whole and to its trumpet solo in particular. The performance's first half concluded with a rousing and dramatic arrangement of Irving Berlin's stirring "God Bless America," in celebration of its 100th anniversary.
The Pops set the stage for the second half with a lush and evocative run through Shelton Brooks' "Strutters Ball," interpreting an engaging arrangement with sly humor and animated grace while accentuating the song's reputation for ushering in the Jazz Age.
LaFarge returned and joined the Pops for a dynamic spin through Berlin's first international hit, “Alexander's Ragtime Band." That triumph was followed by LaFarge's distinctive croon on the song "Night Owl" by Cliff Edwards. He was joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers, who provided flawless background harmonies.
The Rangers, who remained after LaFarge departed, played "Remember," the third song from Berlin. In this half of the program, the Rangers' sonic profile was considerably higher and their stringed accompaniment led the Pops' charge. The next song was the supercharged "Cocoanut Grove Jazz," composed by James Tim Brymn. Just as Russell described it, "Cocoanut Grove" possessed a loping Swing and Ragtime rhythm that proved to be a precursor to Boogie Woogie and early Rock and Roll. It was followed by the equally propulsive "Swing Along."
Giddens then returned to cement the fact there isn't a song or a genre beyond her talented reach. For Shelton Brooks' "Some of These Days," which Giddens introduced as being from the first African-American musical on Broadway, Watson tapped with ferociously effortless precision and Giddens sang and scatted in top form, punctuated by lilting clarinet solos. Returning to a Veteran's Day theme, the Pops tore into a swinging, syncopated version of George M. Cohan's stirring "Over There." What followed was one of the evening's most entertaining highlights, Steep Canyon Rangers' rousing original composition "Auden's Train." It highlighted fiddler Nicky Sanders, who pulled off the train motif to perfection and punctuated his solos with the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" as well several slyly sampled Classical excerpts. The evening concluded with the entire cast performing a raucous rendition of Spencer Williams' "I Ain't Got Nobody."
While this is a wholehearted endorsement of witnessing American Originals Vol. 2 for yourselves in the two remaining performances, it’s worth noting the recording is available for pre-order at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra website. But try not to miss your opportunity to see not only a spectacular musical presentation, but also to soak in the timeless beauty and priceless ambience of newly restored Music Hall.
AMERICAN ORIGINALS VOL. 2 is presented by the Cincinnati Pops at 8 p.m. tonight (Saturday, Nov. 11) and 2 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine. Tickets/more info: cincinnatisymphony.org