So at the risk of being branded the aging hippie that I actually am, I am declaring a new holiday! The day before Mother's Day every year will hereby be known as Earthmother's Day! To find out why just keep reading.
Last night we had the real pleasure of seeing one of our most favorite performers, Perla Batalla, and her band, at the Grand Annex, adjacent to the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, CA. Well it wasn't a houseconcert, but it was in a houseconcert-sized venue, cost a houseconcert-type price and really was very much like a houseconcert in intimate atmosphere, so I felt I could include a review on my blog without really changing my focus. I have been waiting a long time for a chance to include Perla with the acts I have reviewed here, so I will jump at the chance!
We had planned weeks ago to drive to Culver City to see some other favorite performers, John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley performing together on this night. But when Perla's show was announced a couple of weeks ago (or at least when I heard about it), we decided to change plans. This was no slight to John, who we get to see quite often, or James, who we at least see regularly, but we don't get that many chances to see Perla live. And I am still trying to get over the fact that she had to cancel her UCLA Valentine's show while recovering from a bout of pneumonia from which, I'm happy to say, she has made a complete recovery. We had second row center seats to that show that never happened! I figured a Perla show would be a perfect Mother's Day gift for Becky. So we decided the drive of at least an hour and half each way to San Pedro and back and the change in plans were minor obstacles at most. And because the show was only $15 per ticket if bought in advance, it was doable financially in these tough times. And, because those very reasonable tickets were for general admission seating, I made sure we were there nice and early to get good seats in a venue I had never been to before. And wouldn't you know it, we snagged seats in the second row, right in the center! Funny watching karma in action, especially if its your own good karma!
A quick word about the venue. The Grand Annex is a storefront several doors down from the Warner Grand Theatre which I gather is an old movie palace theatre in downtown San Pedro that has an on-going restoration in process. I have never been inside that theatre. This concert was part of the Annex's Latin music series which is done as fund-raising for the foundation that is making the restoration happen. The Annex space is pretty small and unassuming, with a riser-type stage, adequately large, but not roomy, and about 70 to 80 folding chairs arranged in rows in front for the audience. The seats were arranged tightly and were uncomfortable at first but there was plenty of space in the room to spread them a bit and with time that's what everyone did. The lights and the sound system appeared to me to be what I'd call semi-pro, but experience told me Perla would soon make them irrelevant anyways. The room soon filled to at least near-capacity and there was an air of expectation in the crowd. Perla fans tend to be very loyal and I'm sure the room contained few if any casual or first-time fans.
After the perfunctory opening announcements and introduction, Perla and her band took the stage. We were thrilled to see she had the rhythm section we have seen with her most, who have played with her, off and on for many years. This excellent band consisted of drummer/percussionist/vocalist Debra Dobkin, bassist Mike Velasquez and pianist/vocalist Karen Hammack. I will have more to say about all of these great musicians later! The first tune began with Debra playing a near-military roll with brushes on her snare and then Perla's gorgeous a capella voice launching into the very spiritual Leonard Cohen anthem, "If It Be Your Will". For those who are unfamiliar with Perla, she toured as a backup singer with the legendary poet/songwriter/singer for many years and has recorded a CD of her interpretations of his songs. She has an obvious special connection to the man and his songs and I always find them extremely inspirational. And this night would be no exception! For many singers this song and its rendition would be material for a climatic encore, but Perla was just using it to get warm!
Up next was the infectious bouncy rhythm of "Moliendo Cafe" whose Spanish lyrics are about "grinding coffee", which I've always taken as a double entendre but with my feeble Spanish skills, I may be mistaken. Nevertheless, its a great tune that this band really has a feel for and Karen's piano chops, always outstanding, kept it swinging. At this point the band was joined by Claud Mann on congas, who not only is a great musician and a fellow chef, but happens to be Perla's husband of many years. He often augments the band, particularly on the more rhythmic Latin numbers and the next song, "Mas y Mas", certainly fell into that category, with the band sizzling once more.
After that was a change of pace song, beginning with Perla telling us about "La Llarona", the Mexican version of The Bogeyman, used to scare young children into obedience. Perla's haunting vocals emphasized her interpretation of the legend as more of a mystical/spiritual story than a horror story, with her singing "the meek... will reach for the stars and inherit the earth". A very interesting percussive arrangement had Claud playing congas, Perla tapping a rhythm on a musical gourd, and Debra, having covered her share with an "outboard" conga type head, playing her drum kit with her hands!
The standard introduction to the next song always makes me smile, no matter how many times I've heard it. It was particularly meaningful on this Mother's Day Eve. Perla says that we all think our children are the most special things on earth....... but hers really is. Before you write that off as hyperbole, I happen to know she's right! I've had occasion to meet her daughter Eva several times as she's grown up and I've always been quite impressed with her ability to converse with adults she's just met. She's obviously mature beyond her years and I hear she's quite a student. This led into one of my favorite Perla songs, written with guitarist David Batteau, called "Holy Roses", a musical tribute to Perla's pregnancy and Eva's birth and early childhood. It is quite poingnant lyrically and beautiful musically. It's obviously a special song for Perla and her vocal delivery was soulful and full of personality, a signature song and performance!
Our next treat was Perla's special surprise guest, jazz vocalist Melanie Jackson. In one of the most generous and courageous acts a singer could make, Perla left the stage and turned it and her band over to her friend Melanie, who was obviously touched by the gesture. Melanie did a stunning jazz take on "Somewhere Over The Rainbow", taking a somewhat tired standard and turning it back into the transcendant number it must have once originally been. Karen played a great jazzy solo on piano and by the final verse Melanie had left the original melody so far behind that the song had a whole different feel. Not many singers on this earth other than Perla would have the self-confidence and generosity to leave the stage in the middle of her act and let a vocalist of such considerable talent take over!
And then came a song which featured an impressive solo introduction on bass by Mike Velasquez. He displayed great technique in a style called "popping", using the right or "plucking" hand to rhythmically strike the strings percussively while fingering notes with the left, a common technique of funk and soul bassists. He then switched to a "tapping" technique I have never seen a bassist use. He used his right or plucking hand to instead finger frets in a tapping motion making them sound while tapping and sounding with his left hand also. Its something many six string electric and acoustic guitarists have been using in the past decade or so but he is the first I've seen use it on a bass. These "tricks" created a very inventive rhythmic intro to "El Cascabel", a song with a haunting rhythm and a fun audience participation singalong ending.
Another signature tune for Perla came next, the oft-requested traditional Mexican tear-inducer "Cucurrucucu Paloma". This was a perfect example of Perla's amazing talent and her ability to make a song her own. As sung by many, this song can be the type of over-the-top sentimental fluff that would make me cringe, but Perla has an uncanny ability to get "inside" a song emotionally and then convey that to the audience. It always feels "real", never like an actress playing a role. Its difficult to figure out how exactly she does this, much less describe it, but there is definitely magic at work!
I could call each of the remaining songs "one of my favorites" because I guess I have a lot of them! The show "closer" was "Gracias a la Vida", a song made popular by Mercedes Sosa, but rapidly its becoming owned by Perla. This song features the band at its best, Mike's driving bass line popping with Debra's percussion to create the foundation, Karen's syncopated chords and fills giving it shape and substance and of course Perla's vocals making it soar! Its a totally joyous song of thanks and the band obviously has a blast playing it and the audience gave their own thanks by joyously demanding an encore. And they were rewarded with a pair of Leonard Cohen classics. First was by request, "Dance Me to the End of Love" a beautiful love song that begins soft and with a tango-like rhythm and builds into an almost klezmer Eastern European-sounding singalong. Perla has written a beautiful, poetic Spanish translation that she traded-off with the English verses increasing the exotic flavors of this great song.Then came the spiritual plea for redemption, "Bird On The Wire", one of the most loved songs from the Cohen canon as well as one of the most covered. It was another great example of Perla inhabitting a song fully and extracting every last emotional nuance from it. The night concluded with Perla and Melanie leading the audience on a singalong of the classic "Guantanamera". A thoroughly delightful ending to great evening of world-class music!
So this wonderful night left me remaining with one question nagging at me. What is it that makes Perla such a great singer? Well sure, she hits all the notes with great range and power, but to me that's expected from a professional singer. Her talent runs much deeper than that but its difficult to pin down the particulars. As I've mentioned previously, I have never encountered another singer who is so able to totally get inside of a song emotionally and convey that to an audience. Part of that is choice of material, she has a great wealth of originals and covers that are obviously very dear to her, many of which she has been doing for years. But the most amazing ability she has as a performer is how open she is with an audience, how much of herself she shares with a roomful of relative strangers, including her personal and family life. There is an integrity and realness that is very very rare in performers and this totally comes through to an audience. Many performers can make you leave their show in a better mood than when you came in. Perla makes you feel like you leave as a better person! And that incredible ability is the best definition of an Earthmother I could ever come up with. Happy Earthmother's Day everyone!
Here's a link to Perla's website: