Live at The Sunoco Performance Theatre at The Whitaker Center
8 April 2009
My obsession with the music of Chris Botti started back in 1991. At the time, I was (and still am to this day) a huge Paul Simon fan. Following the release of Simon's RHYTHM OF THE SAINTS album, Paul toured the world. In August of 1991, Paul and his band performed a free concert in Central Park. You know the one. HBO aired the concert live and the show was recorded for an eventual CD/DVD release. I was nineteen years old in 1991. I watched the HBO broadcast in my dad's living room. And I was blown away. Not just by Simon's energy and passion... but by a young, shaggy haired trumpet player in Simon's backup band. All I could think while I watched the trumpeter work his way through Simon's tunes was: "Man, this kid can PLAY!" Chris Botti stole the show that night. And I was hooked.
I am a drummer by nature. I played in several semi-professional bands throughout my college years, and if I had my way now, I'd be playing right up there on stage with the likes of Chris Botti. That is not to suggest that I could in any way keep up with or outlast Botti's current drummer, Mr. Billy Kilson. (The man is ALWAYS introduced as Mr. Billy Kilson 'cause the cat is THE MAN.) Anyway, drums are my thing. Not trumpets. But witnessing Botti's talents that hot August night all those years ago sparked something in me. Now I wish I could say that the experience caused me to take up the trumpet full time. It did not. But not because I did not want to do this. Life simply got in the way. College, marriage, career, kids. You know. Life. But that passion for the horn has always smouldered within me. Years went by. Other musical interests prevailed. I confess I did not actively seek out any of Botti's soon to be released solo material. In fact, I knew nothing of such material. (Remember, this was in the days prior to instant information streaming directly into your cell phone, computer and television.) My focus, musically speaking, was on the likes of Pearl Jam, Mark Knopfler, Phil Collins, U2, Rush, etc. Sure there were some jazz artists in that mix as well. Terrence Blanchard and Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Harry Connick, Jr. But every now and then, Chris Botti would pop up on my radar screen. My then girlfriend/now wife and I went to see Sting in 1996... and lo and behold there at the back of the stage was a familiar face. And a familiar sound. Botti strikes again.
Fast forward to 2009. Chris Botti had recently released a CD/DVD package containing a stellar concert recorded in Boston. Again, I had no knowledge of this. (I know some of you here will scream: "How can you call yourself a true fan?" Well, we come and we go but some things never change. I simply came to Chris' solo material late in life. Better late than never, right?) Anyway, it is January of 2009, and my wife and I are relaxing in bed after just shuffling the kids off to sleepy dream time. I am flipping channels. Skip this, go past that... wait... go back. Was that...? PBS? I never watch PBS. But I swear that was... yep it is. Chris Botti. On stage in front of a huge orchestra. Scorching his way through a jazzy tune that sounds familiar. (WHEN I FALL IN LOVE) I watch. I start tapping my foot. My wife puts down her book and looks up.
"Is that Chris Botti?"
"I didn't know he had a solo project."
"Wasn't he dating Katie Couric a while back?"
"I think so..."
It's our eldest daughter, age five, out of bed and crying. Mommy darts off and does her mommy thing. I stay put. Chris has hooked me in. By the time Mommy returns, the band has moved onto smoother and quieter songs. And by the end of the show, I am leaping out of bed and racing down to the computer.
A quick Google search - how the hell did we ever survive without Google, anyway? - and I discover that yeah, Chris Botti DOES in fact have a solo project. More like a solo career. After finishing his time under Sting's wing, Chris had apparently spread his own wings and flown. Man did the kid fly! Amazon.com provides a link to Botti's performance of AVE MARIA from the aforementioned Boston show. I watch it. The hair on my arms stands up. I cry when he reaches and holds the note. You know,
THE note. Then I find the website. THIS website. I discover that Chris is a fanatic when it comes to touring. And guess what? The man - not the kid anymore, the man - is coming to nearby Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on 8 April. Only four months and a thirty minute drive away. Quick check reveals tickets are still available. I snatch up two and race back upstairs. My wife is now beginning to doze. I am breathless.
"Honey, guess what we are doing in April?"
"Paying our taxes?"
"Well, yeah... but guess what else? We are going to see Chris Botti in concert!"
"Great. Now can I go to sleep?"
Her excitement will build, as will mine. In the days that follow, I email that Amazon link to all of my friends and family. Their reaction is unanimous approval. Chris has hooked them as well. CD's are purchased. Botti's entire back catalogue. Copies for me, copies for the in-laws. My father-in-law is especially intrigued. And jealous that we get to see the show. I promise I will take he and his wife to the next one. Hell, the man tours almost non-stop all year. There will be other shows. For now, I am awaiting April, and my first Chris Botti concert. For now, I have come full circle. I am back in Botti's world. I have journeyed home.
April seems to be a long way away. In the days and months leading up to the concert, I have immersed myself in everything Botti. My first purchase: LIVE IN BOSTON. I snag the CD/DVD combo pack at the local record shop for a steal, only $17.99. I watch the DVD three nights in a row. I play the CD at dinner. For a solid week, each night at bedtime, our two daughters, my wife and I curl up in bed and watch Chris perform AVE MARIA on the television in front of a mesmerized Boston crowd. And each night, when that magical moment arrives near the end of the song, I instruct my children to "Watch this." They are spellbound. My wife and I drift off to sleep with my newly purchased copy of the WHEN I FALL IN LOVE CD quietly playing in our room. And by the end of the week, both kids know the sound of Botti's trumpet - and loudly identify him to my wife and I at every opportunity - in the car, at the dinner table - with the zest that only five and three year old girls can muster.
A typical dinner conversation:
"Hey guys..." (Yes I have two girls, but for some reason I always refer to them as guys. It's a Cop thing.)
"Know who this is?"
"Did you know that mommy and I are going to see him in concert soon?"
"Can we come?"
"Next time, I promise."
(I would eventually keep this promise, dragging my eager children out far past their bedtime for their first ever concert experience. But that is a story for another review. The Chris Botti show dated 21 November 2009 to be exact. Wait for it folks, it is better than this one!)
Anyway, the night of our first Chris Botti concert finally arrives.
Quiet dinner at home with the kids. Similar conversation as the one above. We had previously arranged for babysitters to monitor the children, but my wife has to pick the twin sixteen-year-old girls up. She is out and back in ten minutes and we are out the door. LIVE IN BOSTON all the way to Harrisburg, only a thirty-minute drive away.
"God I hope he plays 'Ave Maria' tonight. And 'When I Fall In Love'."
"I am sure he will."
My wife is always reassuring and confident. One of the many things I love about her. Over the bridge into downtown Harrisburg, drive a few blocks and into the parking garage. Never having been to The Whitaker Center, I try my best to take it all in. We enter on an upper floor and are guided through what appears to be some sort of science center/children's activity facility. Down a flight of stairs and into the lobby of a much nicer part of the building. This is The Sunoco Performance Theatre. I immediately notice groups of older couples (my wife and I are in our late thirties, these couples clearly are our parents' age) milling about sipping wine and chatting softly. My wife partakes of a glass of chardonnay and slips into the ladies room once she completes it. I wait patiently for her in the lobby, silently gazing out over the ever growing mass of patrons. Each person immaculately dressed, each person elegant and mature. Despite the fact that I am dressed in a suit and my wife in dressy blouse and black velvet pants, I begin to feel oddly out of place. I start to worry that everyone is staring at me. Sizing me up. Like the poor kid at the prom who cannot get any girl to dance with him. Just then, my wife returns. The stares abate. I am certain there actually were none to begin with, it just felt that way. The lights begin to dim, so in we go.
Since I purchased our tickets rather late in the game, we end up seated in the very back row under the looming balcony. No matter, however, as the theatre is rather cozy. A man from the local jazz radio station strolls on stage and begins chatting about the history of the building and upcoming shows. Blah-blah history, blah-blah artists. Finally, he introduces "Columbia recording artists Chris Botti!"
And there he is.
Strolling casually onstage from stage left, Botti is wearing a sharp, dark tailored suit and brilliantly white shirt. Tie knotted tightly around his neck, he nods to piano player Billy Childs, places the trumpet to his lips and...
AVE MARIA: The first notes emerge from within Botti's golden throated trumpet like thieves in the night, sneaking upon the crowd in stealthy fashion. The song sounds more airy than on the Boston CD... more open. No orchestra, but no matter. Botti fills the gaps with bursts of beauty so powerful, well hell, there goes the hair on my arms again. I grip my wife's hand tightly and begin to tense up. She knows why.
"Watch this." I whisper.
Botti takes a deep breath - barely noticeable but present nonetheless - and pushes the trumpet skyward. And out flows the longest single note that has ever been uttered. Longer still than on the Boston CD. And dear God that note is radiant. And not at all painful as one might suspect such a note could be. Somehow, Botti manages to convince what could turn into a shrieking, nails-on-a-chalkboard note to transform into something far more fluid, far more tonal. The crowd cannot contain themselves. Grown men shouting, grown women sighing. I myself let out a not at all self-conscious holler of joy. The roar goes up even before Botti finishes the note, and stays up through the end of the song. And Botti just smiles. A wide, Cheshire Cat kind of grin that says it all. The man is happy with what he has just accomplished, and the man is having fun. With the crowd now on their feet for the first of many ovations, the band joins Botti on stage and rips violently into...
WHEN I FALL IN LOVE: Slightly less enthusiastic than the Boston version, yet still sublime. Hearing my two favourite Botti songs back-to-back right out of the gate puts me in a state not unlike that which one experiences after great sex. I glance at my wife half way through the song to see she is in the same state. This is gonna be a good night...
The song works its way toward Billy Childs' solo and Mr. Billy Kilson's hard core workout, and finishes strong. Again we rise, again we shout, again Botti smiles. Before departing from the jazzy, upbeat tempo of LOVE, Botti grabs the mike and starts to talk. It is something he will do frequently throughout the evening. And a smart observer will deduce that this is Botti's way of giving his lips and his lungs a break between songs, but I never get the feeling that he is talking too much. Having seen hundreds of concerts in my life, I can tell that the dialogue is rehearsed and repeated night after night. But no matter. If the man needs a break, he shall have it. The good evenings and band intros complete, we move swiftly into...
CARUSO: I am starting to feel like I am AT the Boston show. Not a complaint mind you; I am in heaven. The song is blissful and it is during the first half of the song that I notice something that Botti will do throughout the night: He begins shifting his trumpet left and right and varying intervals in order to give everyone in the house a good view of his finger work.
Now, I would love to provide detailed descriptions of what occurred during the remainder of the tracks played... but something happened somewhere deep in CARUSO that shifted my consciousness into a different place. At a certain point, I feel my shoulders relax. Hell, I didn't even know my shoulders were tense! My weight shifts to a lower center of gravity and I find myself drifting away. I hear the music... then I feel the music... then I start to become the music. Anyone who has ever played an instrument will understand what I am talking about. It's like a trance. Happens to me all the time when I play the drums. At a certain point, when all the pistons are firing, when all the parts are running smoothly, everything else simply drops away. What was difficult becomes easy; what was challenging becomes routine. I am certain at this moment that Botti is in the same place. From this point on, the concert becomes something otherworldly.
What I can tell you is that Botti plays the following tunes, not particularly in this order:
FLAMENCO SKETCHES, EMMANUELLE (featuring the barefooted and glowing Lucia Micarelli of Boston DVD fame) THE LOOK OF LOVE (featuring guitarist Mark Whitfield's cousin Sy Smith on vocals, whom I note is radiant as she glides onstage. Not her hair, nor her dress, nor even her eyes. I mean the woman herself is radiant.) CINEMA PARIDISO (sans Yo-Yo Ma) and a few others. Between each song there are stories of how Botti became spoiled touring with Sting, stories of how Botti simply had to have Mr. Billy Kilson in his band if for no other reason than to make Sting envious, and stories of life on the road. Each story elicits chuckles and laughs, and each song draws the crowd to their feet. Each climax draws cheers of excitement and admiration from everyone in attendance. By the time Botti finishes the show, every person in the theatre is shell-shocked with joy. But there are two more surprises to come. Botti has saved the best for last...
INDIAN SUMMER: Asking the spent audience if they can handle just one more, Botti brings on Mr. Billy Kilson. What follows is - from a drummer's perspective - a powerhouse of playing. Kilson erupts into the drums, not onto them. He finds his groove and stays there. He pounds, coaxes, whispers and shouts... all with his sticks. At one point near the end of his thunderous solo, Kilson begins a frenetic up and down back handed slap fest with the high-hats. It is at this very moment that an older African American man about three rows in front of us shouts: "Go on son!" You said it daddy-o! I don't know if Kilson hears this outburst or not, but I like to think he did. The solo nearing completion, I am on my feet before anyone else. We drummers can always sense when a solo is coming to an end, and it is a point of pride to be the first up for the ovation. We drummers gotta stick together. Kilson rises to a well deserved ovation, and before anyone has time to exit the Theatre, Botti is on the mic again...
"One more? One more!"
ONE FOR MY BABY, ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Botti decides to do this one "old school style." Leaping off the stage and down into the crowd, Botti instructs the soundboard technician to lower all the mics.
"Just shut 'em off, okay?"
What follows is the most intimate, most beautiful moment of the night. I stare in amazement as Botti stands in the center of the stage left aisle and calmly plays with his heart on his sleeve. Childs accompanies on piano, still onstage, but it is Botti front and center. By the end of the song, even Botti is spent.
As I turn to my wife, all I can muster is a soul shuddering, "Wow."
Botti returns to the stage, and as the crowd begins to filter out, he reports that he and the band "... will be in the lobby signing autographs, so please stop by. We would love to see you." I turn back to my wife in amazement.
"Did he just say..."
"Oh, we gotta go!"
Now folks, I can't stress to you enough just how rare a thing this is. As I mentioned, I have seen hundreds of concerts. And never once has any performer taken the time to meet & greet the fans post show. At least not at any show I have been to. We dash into the lobby and I spot to merchandise table. Let's see... CD, nope, got it... DVD, nope, got it... ahhhh, the Boston poster. My wife heads to the ladies room for a break and I pay for the poster. Jump in the forming line and I am about fifteen people back. Botti enters the room to cheers and applause. The line moves quickly but my wife returns in time. Before we know it, we are standing face to face with the man that just gave us nearly two hours of musical bliss.
"Mr. Botti, it is an honor to meet you. My wife and I have been fans of yours since you toured with Paul Simon."
Botti seems flushed. He smiles.
"Really? That is a long time ago!"
We shake hands and I tell Chris Botti to his face that I am in awe of him. He signs our poster, thanks us for coming and we move away. As my wife and I exit the theatre, back up the stairs through the odd looking science center thingy, I turn to my wife, wrap my arms around her and whisper:
"No," she whispers in return, "thank you."
No, I think... thank Chris Botti.
The framed signed poster: