Stand up for royalty

Soul of the blues: Irma Thomas, the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” turns 74 in a little over a week—fittingly, during Mardi Gras. For most of the past six decades, her life has been steeped in the musical gumbo of the Big Easy as a staple at Jazz Fest and a regular at New Orleans’ small clubs.

But even with her royal pedigree, she had to reach into her bag of tricks to engage the very polite, but sedate audience at the Mondavi Center during her performance last Wednesday. In defense of the crowd, Mondavi’s seats are quite comfortable.

About four songs into her set, she stopped the show to remind people it’s almost Mardi Gras time back home, and that they needed to get in the spirit. So she whipped out a handkerchief and ordered the crowd to do the same. Soon people were waving hankies, hats or whatever was handy as the soul party resumed onstage.

That was just one fine moment in the great, nationally touring show called “Blues at the Crossroads,” a musical testimony to R&B, soul and blues of the ’50s and ’60s.

New Orleans wasn’t the only great music city represented. The Dynamites from Memphis served as the night’s excellent house band and Soulive’s Eric Krasno played lead guitar. Astonishing young Brooklyn vocalist Alecia Chakour came out early and showed the crowd just why she’s creating such a buzz these days. Her touring history includes Lettuce and the Warren Haynes Band.

And let’s not forget that co-headliner Lee Fields—he’s often called “Little J.B.” due to his compact physique, dance moves and powerful vocals, similar to James Brown—also currently resides in Brooklyn. Fields brought sheer exuberance, style and soul power to the stage. He played a great version of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and brought new depth to a passionate “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” During the song, he paused and reminded the men in the audience that, you know, we wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman. Irma Thomas would probably agree.

—Paul Piazza

Grammy-worthy jazz: Attending a show at the Mondavi Center’s intimate Vanderhoef Studio Theatre Cabaret is akin to stepping into a different time zone—and zip code—from years gone by. As luck would have it, Billy Childs and his quartet held court there for a four-night residency last week—just days before the jazz pianist and composer snagged his fourth Grammy Award for arranging “New York Tendaberry.”

On this particular Thursday night, the group dealt a heaping dose of Childs’ own recorded jazz numbers mixed with various bits of improv and personal taste. Steve Wilson (alto, soprano sax), Hans Glawischnig (stand-up bass) and Johnathan Blake (drums and percussion) are all immensely talented musicians.

From the opening number, “Backwards Bop,” through to the group’s splendid rendition of Horace Silver’s “Peace,” no musical stone was left unturned. Each member, as in any good jazz quartet, was able to strut his stuff and display chops—taking turns while never seeming self-indulgent. If anything, we wished some of Childs’ solo anecdotes never ended.

The capacity crowd—ranging from 20-somethings to those leaning toward their 60s—couldn’t have been any more attentive and patient. Nary a cell phone was seen snapping photos, tweeting or recording during the near-90 minute performance. Each tune—including two different numbers about Childs’ sons—was met with huge rounds of applause.

Pay close attention when Mondavi does these intimate cabaret shows—you’ll rarely see many of the artists come through again for years. Plus, the sound is flawless, there isn’t a bad seat in the house and there’s a fully-stocked bar. Only two more musicians will perform at the Vanderhoef during the remainder of the season: saxophonist Donny McCaslin with his jazz group on March 25-28, and French-Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly, May 16-17.

—Eddie Jorgensen

Sacto Idol: Shout-out to local singer-songwriter Erica Ambrin,who made it on the somehow still-running vocal competition show American Idol this season. LowBrau hosted screenings of support—and hooray!—she earned a golden ticket to Hollywood.

Bad news is Ambrin was cut shortly thereafter. Good news is she’s releasing an album, The Art of Falling, later this year and we can all hear more from this soulful talent.

—Janelle Bitker