Saturday, October 23, 2010

Concert Review: Max Weinberg Big Band

The Max Weinberg Big Band at the Jazz Kitchen, Indianapolis IN, 10-20-2010

Ask any E Street Band member, according to Max Weinberg, about Indianapolis and they will tell you a story from the 1978 Darkness tour. Apparently the soundcheck finished early and the band headed over to a local, um, entertainment club for gentlemen – the Red Garter – for some relaxation. Clarence Clemons, being as Max phrased it “a man of varied interests,” befriended (I think that’s what you call it) several of the strippers there and, unbeknownst to the rest of the band, not only invited them to the show – but invited them onstage for what was surely one of the most memorable renditions of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” in E Street history.

It must have been memorable, because Max recounted the story during both of his Max Weinberg Big Band shows at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis this week – adding that he laughed his butt off as Clarence played directly to the strippers as if the rest of the band weren’t even there. No such shenanigans ensued at the Jazz Kitchen, though; just a high-energy, thoroughly entertaining big band show.

Of course, this was a much smaller venue than anything the Springsteen/E Street outfit ever plays, despite the fact that there were fifteen guys onstage – five saxes, three trombones, four trumpets, piano, bass, and drums. Such a small venue, in fact, that those of us at the front tables had to be grateful that the saxes were in the front row and not the trombones! I was fortunate enough to have tickets for both the sold-out early show and the nearly-sold-out late show, and what a fun evening it was. Some highlights:

  • Max seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. He seemed relaxed and happy as he introduced songs, sometimes giving a little bit of musical history or joking around a bit (don’t worry, Conan – your job is in no danger). He played with joy, sometimes looking almost like an excited little boy behind the drums, sometimes concentrating intensely, sometimes exchanging glances with various band members or directing them with a nod. Totally Irrelevant Fashion Note: If recent pix I’ve seen of Jay are any indication, this may be the first time that Max’s hair has been longer than his son’s.
  • The setlist was nicely varied – everything from crime show theme songs (apparently a bit of a specialty for Max) to tunes like “The Kid From Red Bank” to the Sinatra tribute “Only the Lonely” and the smokin’ hot Buddy Rich-inspired “Parthenia,” with stops along the way for a Beatles medley (“Help,” “Do You Want To Know A Secret,” and – a high-octane highlight – “Kansas City”) and, closing out each set, a Springsteen cover (“Kitty’s Back” for the early set, “Born to Run” for the late show). While Max took the opportunity to showcase some subtlety and versatility in his own playing that he doesn’t often get to deploy with “that other band I play with,” it wasn’t a drum-solo fest by any means. Each of the band members had a chance to shine, and Max was generous with the spotlight, making sure to introduce all of the guys by name at least a couple of times.
  • And what a great band it was, versatile and energetic. Musical highlights included a “duel” between two of the sax players during “Rat Race,” a fantastic trumpet solo during “Kansas City,” and pretty much every note played by the phenomenal young bass player Carlitos del Puerto. Second only to Max, del Puerto looked like he was having the most fun up there, his face occasionally breaking into a grin of pure delight as he kept an eagle eye trained on Max’s beat.
  • The two Springsteen covers – both arranged by one of the trumpet players – were very interesting. “Kitty’s Back” worked incredibly well as a big-band number and suited the band to a tee. It’s almost as if the song had been intended to be heard this way from the start. “Born to Run,” on the other hand, felt more like a big-band tribute to the original. It was a lot of fun, and got the audience thoroughly engaged; and it was thrilling to watch Max’s drum work on this classic from just a few feet away. (And, as Max pointed out, the arrangement got a nod of approval from Bruce when he heard it on the radio a while back.) But it didn’t feel as revelatory as “Kitty” did.
  • I’m glad I was able to attend both shows. The early show was terrific, with “Kitty’s Back” being a particular highlight. The late show was considerably looser (Max mentioned that during the break they’d learned that the Jazz Kitchen serves “generous” drinks, which may have contributed to the looseness), with Max escalating the force and velocity of his drumming to E Street proportions at least once or twice. Several tunes were repeated from one set to the next, including “Parthenia” and the Beatles medley, but there was enough variation to make it well worth buying tickets for both.
  • Max mentioned from the stage that the MWBB would be the house band at the upcoming “Stand Up for Heroes” show (featuring Tony Bennett, Jerry Seinfeld, and some guy named Springsteen on the bill). Should be a fun evening for those who can splurge on tickets for this worthwhile benefit.
  • He also mentioned his recent heart surgery, assuring the crowd that he is now in excellent health (and to this untrained eye he appeared to be fitter than ever; I overheard him telling a fan afterwards that his doctor had estimated he can expect to live another 35 years).
  • And he even promised, from the stage, that “that other band I play with” would be coming back around “sooner rather than much later” – estimating that it would be in 2012, and assuring us that Indianapolis would surely be on the schedule. (Not that we Hoosiers should hold our breaths till we turn blue or anything, but Bruce, if you’re reading this, the Red Garter is ready and waiting for you!)
  • A note about the venue. This was my first visit to the Jazz Kitchen, and it won’t be the last. In addition to being a fine music venue – you gotta love a place with placards on the tables requesting no talking during the music! – it more than holds its own as a restaurant. I had the “not so Cajun” chicken, which was spicy and delicious, and a decadent brownie dessert. Even with a packed house, the service was excellent – my water glass and coffee cup were never empty. I was glad I’d decided to go early enough to enjoy a leisurely dinner before the show started.

If you have the opportunity to catch the Max Weinberg Big Band, by all means do so! Expect a high-energy show, though don’t expect an encore (after the late show several members of the audience were calling for an encore and I noted a couple of the band members muttering “no!” and hurrying one another off the stage). And expect Max to be very accessible to fans after the show; I’ve heard that he is making a point of doing so throughout this tour, and in Indy he was more than happy to accommodate requests for autographs, photos, handshakes, and chatting after both sets. (Fangirl note: I’ve been listening to the E Street Band since 1975, but living in the Midwest doesn’t give one as many “meet and greet” opportunities as one may find elsewhere. Thus, this was my first chance to meet and speak with any of the band members. Certainly it was secondary to the great music I’d enjoyed, but getting to meet Max, exchange a few words, and get a photo with him made me a pretty darned happy fangirl – I’ll admit it.)

A truly fun evening all around.

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