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Live Review: Les Paul Birthday Celebration - Iridium, NYC 6.9.08 PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 17 June 2008 17:18
les_paul_photo.jpgBy Karl Greenberg - GJD Contributor
How long has Les Paul been doing a show at Iridium? I don't know. Let's say years, but probably not 93 of them, though that's how old the he is. I know because I was there Monday night when the waiters brought a gigantic slab of a cake onstage with one candle on top for Paul to blow out, which he did.

The evening was billed as the Les Paul Birthday Celebration, but it was the same Great Les Paul Show he's been doing there every night since, well, not as long as Bobby Short played the Carlyle, but damned long enough in an age when Gaps and Ikeas and Mama Mias (playing next door) come and go on a weekly basis along with new office spires and freakish crane accidents.

To be fair, Iridium hasn't been around all that long, and it's done its share of moving. I remember when it opened opposite Lincoln Center as a snazzy club with a Madame Curie Rococo look and cool velvet everwhere. Now the club has a bit more declasse, a kind of Times Square meets Smalls feel, down on broadway opposite that butt-ugly black building on 49th where they probably detain people for waterboarding.

Small as Iridium is, especially next to the aircraft-hanger of a theater, the Winter Garden. But the line for Les Paul's birthday bash was so long that, when I got out of the subway i was sure the crowd was for mama Mia. Using charm and press cred, I grabbed what I took to be a prime spot at the bar, giving and usher's view of the crowd entering with as much alacrity as workers at a Gaza checkpoint. It was slow going because they had to pack 'em all in somehow. A bit like samples of every species on Earth being ushered onto Noah's ark.

The crowd was so big, the space so comparatively small, that ushers had to figure out the right geometry of customers to chairs to shoehorn the folks in, leaving elbowroom for rockstars. There were a few, big hair was the giveaway. it was packed to the rafters by 9:45 and peoeple were being turned away. Not a single empty chair in the place.

So, I found the guy who knows the guy who owns Iridium; actually he was standing in front of me blocking the view, along with a the photographer who, it turns out, is the famous guy who took those pictures of John Lennon in the "I love NY " shirt. I didn't know that, otherwise I wouldn't have said, "Guy! GUY! Listen, since I can't see over your 'fro, why don't you take my seat, I'll stand in front of you. No, really, I insisted, take my seat!"

I asked the other guy, "Is it always this packed for Les Paul's show or just for his birthday?: "it's always this packed," he said.

And what a show! What playing, by Paul, by his sidemen, and woman. If you haven't caught the show, which is every monday night at 8 and 10, you best get to the Iridium because the man is, after all, 93 years young. Don't be smug; at this rate, there's a damned good chance you'll die first.

But you should also see it because you won't get this kind of experience anywhere else or probably ever again. Paul is both a consummate player a la Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, but also a consumate perofrmer and entertainer of the Dean Martin-with-Scotch variety one simply doesn't see anymore. Paul and his band have Vegas Strip je ne sais quouis: "this is my house, this is my living room, I'm at home up here, come on in and take a seat."

Who has that now? Most performances now are owned, packaged, co-branded and marketed, and directed by technology, that reduces the artists to squirming petri dish samples. Yes, "it's a really big shew," but the performer is, too often, a desicated sample of him or herself. Watching Les reminded me of the old TV clips of Judy Garland, Nat Cole, Crosby, Davis Jr, Johnny Mercer etc.,

Les Paul, arthritis and all, still plays like a master, choosing his notes with finesse, given support by sideman Lou Pallo, who has been with him for a quarter century, and with whom Paul has a bantering side act going on about their relative ages Lou is 70, a child. He also plays a Gibson Les Paul, of course, amped for acoustic, almost pure treble, while on standup bass was the hot (in every sense) Nicki Parrott who sang "Lets Fall in Love" with arch eroticism to which Les responded "I'm like a condemned building with a new flagpole." It's a joke I think he must do every week, but it's worth repeating.

The two hour show ran through standards that - Oak Room and Rainbow Room notwithstanding - one probably hears infrequently now: "Brasil," "I can t get started," "The Lady is a Tramp" while Paul did his signature moves, the string bending, the harmonics, runs.

Les Paul also brought out a guest-list of performers both known and unknown (one guy is a high school band leader who came up from Texas to play "Back Home again in Indiana" ) It was a variety-show range of performers, from jazz singer, gypsy guitar and violin to tap dancing and standup comedy by the head writer for Howard Stern. Interspersed throughout was Les' banter with his guests, and priceless recollections about his first gig playing for Bing Crosby, and - this goes back - visiting Eubie Blake in the hospital when Blake was recovering from having been mustard gassed in the trenches, circa WW1.

The highlight of the evening had to be the incredible Frank Vignola, a Django reincarnation and former Les Paul sideman, who came up to play, well I forget the tune, but for a moment during his song I thought I knew what it must be like for the really devoutly religious to be in church when the sermon's on fire and the preacher is on fire with the spirit.

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