This was outing #6 of the year (following 1 OLT, 2 NAC, 1 hockey game, and 1 Gladstone) to see the NAC Pops show called “80s Mix Tape” with conductor Stuart Chafetz and singers Julie Reiber and Bryce Ryness. The show was a collection of 21 songs from the 1980s performed by the NAC Orchestra, with 8 instrumental versions and 13 with lyrics. The full playlist (with two extra songs) is at the bottom.
The show kicked off with the instrumental version of The Final Countdown (Europe), and it was good, but not amazing. A nice light opening. They then went directly into a song with the female singer, Call Me (Blondie). I felt like she was doing a pop lite version of the song, no real grit, and the version I’m used to from Blondie has more deeper tones behind it. Or so I thought. However, you’ll see in the playlist version below, my memory might be off because it isn’t much darker/deeper in tone than the version I heard last night. It didn’t amaze me.
They then segued to the male singer doing Wake Me Up Before You Go Go (Wham). And I thought we were in trouble. I really like the song, and the energy of the original is enough to keep my toes bouncing if it is on the car stereo or headphones. I remember actually having it on a cassette tape, yes I’m that old, and listening to it on my no-name walkman while doing my paper route. It kept me moving and avoided my mind going numb while doing it. Yet the male artist seemed completely flat. Plus, I’m used to a radio version that is slightly sped up I think, as I consistently hear the CD version and think it is about 10% too slow.
We’ve experienced this before though. The orchestra is always great, but despite hiring Broadway singers to front the songs, the versions often come off somewhere between a theme park summer revue offering, a low-rated Glee episode, or high-end karaoke. One last year with “women of rock” had that problem in places.
Then the guy headed into Careless Whisper (George Michael) as a duet with the woman, and it was decent. At least I thought so, Andrea wasn’t sold.
Back to the female singer, the show moved into True Colors (Cindi Lauper). And suddenly that “deeper” sound that I was looking for in the Blondie song was there. Deep, rich, not poppy, and she was awesome. Andrea thought she was a bit off-tempo, but I loved it. Ironically, this is the second time this week I’ve seen that song performed, although the other time was just on TV. I watched the premiere of the show Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and it was sung by her father played by Peter Gallagher. The full episode is available on YouTube, not a bad show. Nothing “extraordinary”, more like a Glee replacement. I’ve cued up the Peter Gallagher intro scene although you can jump ahead two minutes to the actual singing (for context, he’s in a catatonic state but she “hears” what’s going on in his head).
Back to the NAC…the next song was Broken Wings (Mr. Mister), and again, another decent version. Maybe we’re back on track? The NAC did three instrumentals following this:
- Theme from Chariots of Fire — I have no idea why so many people think this song is amazing, I want to fall asleep for the film, the soundtrack, and well, even the name;
- Theme from Ghostbusters — hard to describe, but I felt like the balance was off in the orchestra, maybe needs more strings than brass, I don’t know enough to define, while Andrea thought it was okay but would have been better if sang; and,
- Theme from Back to the Future — it was an awesome rendition, with the combo of “old Western” pomp with a bit of Huey Lewis’ infused pop mixed with suspense music from Indiana Jones-style adventure themes.
Continuing the same theme, the last song of the first half was Huey Lewis’ “The Power of Love” — aaaaand we were back to sucking canal water again.
Intermission was great, which I wouldn’t normally mention, but we wandered down by one of the other theatres which is showing Unikkaaqtuat right now from the Indigenous Theatre series. While we were there, we got to see some amazing posters they have put up about the Innu stories featured in the play. Really spectacular imagery provided by Taqqut Productions. Anyway, I digress.
When the second half started, they followed the tradition of the first song of each set being an instrumental, and they went with Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears). Really well done.
They followed it up with the male singer doing In the Air Tonight (Phil Collins) and while I thought it was “okay”, Andrea thought it was really good. Perhaps my reticence is more that I’m not a big fan of the song — I’ll listen to it occasionally, but if I have a skip function, it won’t stay on my playlist long. I am not a big fan of slow ballads, no matter how well done. Doesn’t stop me from singing along if it’s on, but I wouldn’t willingly choose it more than about once a year.
And then we come to the price of admission. Holy snicker doodles. The orchestra did an instrumental version of Smooth Criminal (Michael Jackson), and sure, the overall orchestra part was solid, as always. But the OMG part was that they had the concert master / first chair violin Jessica Linnebach do a showcase for the song. All of the individual artists are good, let’s face it, they are in the NAC’s orchestra. No small feat. And she is the associate concert master for NAC and concert master for most of the Pops series. Sure, we’ve seen the overall concertmaster, Yosuke Kawasaki, perform, usually something to do with more classical pieces specifically for a violin solo. But Jessica? Almost never on her own.
She was absolutely awesome. And was likely exhausted at the end of it. I pulled some videos from YouTube. Here she is after winning a competition in NYC:
And a more classical piece (34 minutes long, so maybe she wasn’t tired after Smooth Criminal!).
Alas, no separate recordings on iTunes to enjoy. Sigh. Hope to see more of her solos in the future. The playlist has a version of the instrumental, but it doesn’t do justice to her violin contributions.
Moving on, we had Alone (Heart) and the female singer did a great job again, leaving me to wonder what happened in the Blondie song at the start…was it just a stylistic choice? Sound levels were off?
Next up was The Spirit of Radio (Rush), performed as an instrumental in memoriam for Neil Peart, the drummer of Rush who passed away on Friday. I’ve included an instrumental as well as the original in the playlist, partly as the song isn’t that familiar to some. But there are some snippets that are frequently sampled by radio stations for their jingles and internal promotions, so you’ll recognize the segments when you hear them.
The orchestra followed up with another instrumental And So It Goes (Billy Joel). Every time I hear this song, either in the original or in instrumental, it makes me think of Newfoundland. There is an almost Irish lilt to the music that goes past the up-tempo beat of Cape Breton, and more of a sweeping landscape song. Really good version. The playlist has both a cheap instrumental version as well as the original by Billy Joel.
They then went on to the wrap-up phase of the concert with five songs with the singers. I didn’t much care for any of the versions:
- 867-5309 / Jenny (Tommy Tutone) was flat, and the only interesting part was that the orchestra members were singing backup, which I’ve never noticed them do before;
- If I Could Turn Back Time (Cher) was okay, certainly clear articulation, and Andrea thought it was good;
- Addicted to Love (Robert Palmer) was awful, I have NO IDEA what he was going for in sound, some sort of weird accent thrown in too;
- The Heart of Rock and Roll (Huey Lewis) was another bad theme park revue version, or a bad cover band at a fireworks display; and,
- Celebration (Kool and the Gang), which while not much better performed, at least had two things going for it — energy and audience participation.
And it is an interesting side-note to the performance. Normally, the average age of the Pops audience hits in the high-50s / low 60s probably. Definitely an older crowd. I’m 51 and I’m younger than most attendees by at least 10 years. Which is common for most orchestras, since the tickets aren’t cheap, we went for dinner, and we had a babysitter for six hours, plus parking. So most goers are either older or have more disposable income, or both.
But last night’s crowd was decidely skewed younger. 30s and 40s, I would say. And the result was LOUD. The NAC got cheers, people singing with the last song, and standing up and dancing. Normally, Ottawa is a sitting crowd. Often a complaint for Bluesfest, folk concerts, and hockey games. But the audience could actually be heard last night. Which was a special feat since the weather kept a lot of people home, with a less-than-capacity crowd.
In the end, my review is probably the same one I will always have for Pops outings — the orchestra is awesome, the singers are hit and miss.