That zany John Morris Russell is back in town. He is leading the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and guest artists New York Voices in a sweet trip back to the 1970s.
They saved the best for last.
Make no mistake, the whole evening was fun. The big crowd clearly got a kick out of it. But there was no topping the "Guilty Pleasures Medley" that ended the night. Everyone cut loose. There were sparkly shards of "YMCA," "We Are Family," "Stayin' Alive," and the Lance Diamond classic "Brick House." At one high point Morris turned around to face the audience, leaving the BPO on funky autopilot. "Oh yeeeeahhhh," he growled into the mic. Singers and orchestra hurled themselves into "Burn Baby Burn."
"Get down... Boogie oogie oogie!" This is an image I won't soon forget -- the strings, under the leadership of Assistant Concertmaster Ansgarius Aylward, tackling this one.
Another image I won't forget: the irrepressible Russell descending the podium to dance. Every time I've seen that, it's funnier than the last. He looks like a nerd, probably on purpose, and he rocks the look. Watching him, you can't help but join in the joke.
To carry off a show like this, you need top-notch musicianship. The BPO demonstrated that, of course, and so did New York Voices.
The group kept kidding around about how long it's been around. It debuted in 1988 as a quintet. Now it's a quartet, with Lauren Kinhan the only newcomer -- that is, the only singer who wasn't there from the start.
All of them are flawlessly together. The details were down. The four singers began every note at the same nanosecond. They were so secure in what they were doing that they gave every appearance of having a blast.
They did a breathtaking a cappella performance of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love." The harmonies were as polished as glass. "Ain't No Sunshine" shone, with its quiet subtleties. A Carole King medley captured her laid-back style.
The orchestra at first overpowered the singers, but the problem seemed to fade. Morris had clearly made the effort to utilize the BPO to good effect, and the arrangements had splash. "Me and Julio" had good Latin percussion effects. Weather Report's "Birdland" had a full-bodied, jazzy sound.
The Voices really showed what they could do with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Bravo to singer Darmon Meader for approaching Freddy Mercury's vocals. His fellow singers filled in creatively. With the four of them out front, the piece took on a classical feel, like an oratorio. It had that kind of intensity.
The singers' low-key humor helped keep things moving. Kim Nazarian, an excellent singer, had a freewheeling style that was especially captivating. She and the other singers even threw in history here and there. Who knew that the guy who wrote "Ain't No Sunshine" had a day job making toilet seats for airplanes? Nazarian joked, spontaneously it seemed: "Ain't no sunshine there."
Russell and the BPO began with a medley of hits that had featured the late Buffalo guitarist Tommy Tedesco and his band the Wrecking Crew. The medley, which featured guitarist Mike Moser, showed what a force in the pop world Tedesco was. These songs were all over the place, ranging from the Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays" to the Grass Roots' "Sooner Or Later" to Neil Diamond's "Cracklin' Rosie." It's great the BPO is remembering him.
And it's great to be remembering the '70s, a decade with unique flavor.
Russell will be returning next in December, for what promises to be a memorable Holiday Pops.