Being isolated on a rock in the Pacific, we’re lucky when top-notch entertainment comes through our towns. Kahilu’s Artistic Director Chuck Gessert had the foresight to bring in the great vocalist Lisa Fischer last Friday. He’s been crowing about her show for about a month, and even showed the Oscar-winning documentary she stars in, 20 Feet from Stardom, to get folks excited too. But all the pre-show hype and pre-recorded footage don’t even come close to experiencing Lisa Fischer and her band Grand Baton live.
Fischer won a Grammy with her 1991 hit “How Can I Ease the Pain,” and paid her dues for decades on the road and in the studio singing behind pop legends like Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Sting, Alicia Keys, and the Stones. She’s stepped into the spotlight now and deserves every minute of fame.
After a few quick band intros, Fischer jumped into a fiery version of “Message in a Bottle.” Fischer’s 90-minute set was mostly packed with cover versions of hits by artists for whom she’d sung backup, but the new arrangements were almost unrecognizable with polyrhythmic explorations and gospel/spiritual elements. “We like to be able to sing songs great artists made popular, and reinterpret them our own way,” said Fischer in a soft whispery voice she used for between-song patter. Fischer utilized two microphones throughout the show. One of the handheld mics was used for straight-ahead singing, while the other offered ethereal echoes and delays. Offstage, a Kahilu sound tech watched for Fischer’s cues for which vocal parts to emphasize. The result was phenomenal.
When Fischer is not singing, she dances, sways, and makes hypnotic gestures with her arms. It’s easy to get lost in the dreamy music and onstage visuals.
Before beginning the “Immigrant Song,” Fischer gave a heartfelt intro about discovering her DNA roots from one of those mail-away kits. She found out she’s part African, Indian, and a sliver of UK showed up in her ancestral pie-chart, but no American roots – “Does that mean I could be an immigrant!” said Fischer in a paranoid yet comical tone. Although we have differences, Fischer said we should be aware that we are “one beautiful world with beautiful countries.” At that point, a baby in the audience made a loud noise. “Yes! The baby knows,” replied Fischer.
Fischer’s band, Grand Baton, is the powerful force behind her vocals. The trio features Musical Director and multi-instrumentalist, JC Maillard. He alternated between electric guitar, keys and SazBass, an 8 steel-stringed electroacoustic instrument inspired by the traditional Turkish “saz” and Greek bouzouki. It was created and designed upon Maillard’s request by French luthier Herve Prudent. Mallard also provided back-up vocals and was given a center stage solo which he performed mostly on his knees.
Throughout the evening drummer Thierry Arpino demonstrated he was a master at jazz, rock, African rhythm, R&B, and pop rhythms. He’s backed legends like Joe Beck, Larry Coryell, and Jean- Luc Ponty. Arpino played Zildjian cymbals of all shapes and sizes that sat on a pole towering above his head. He’s endorsed by Yamaha so that explained the double floor bass drums. Before the show I asked him how many pieces were in his kit – we did a count and came up with twenty-four, not counting the cajon, the box-shaped percussion instrument he used on “Fever.”
Aidan Carroll provided bass, both electric and stand-up, throughout the show. Carroll had successful stints with Donald Fagen, Warren Haynes, Fred Hersch, and other prestigious artists. He’s been with Fischer for several years now and is given free rein to improvise during solos as he did magnificently on “Fragile.”
During the middle of her concert, Fischer wanted to connect even closer with the audience and go out among the crowd, but the portable wooden staircase had been stashed away. Gessert and a stagehand immediately leaped into action for the unplanned event and quickly wrangled the bulky contraption. “I love it when men use their muscles,” said Fischer as the stairs became available. “I feel like a princess!” During her time with the fans she pointed out a few single men and sang a sultry version of “Fever.”
Fischer and Grand Baton closed out the show with a slow funky Stones’ medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Miss You.” JC Maillard played lead on SazBass while the rest filled in with a Middle-Eastern beat – Fischer scatted brilliantly on top of trance-inducing rhythms. Everything built to a feverish pitch before drifting off into a calming melody.
Gessert and Kahilu’s Executive Director Deborah Goodwin came out to place leis on everyone. Some thought it was the end of the show and started leaving, but the faithful were treated to an otherworldly version of “Gimme Shelter.” Her haunting vocals washed over the crowd resulting in wall-to-wall “chicken skin.” Aidan Carroll took a solo on upright bass, while Arpino quietly used brushes on his snare. Fischer traded vocal lines with the audience – “Listen to the choir,” she said. As the audience sang, Fischer joined them, “We need more love, sweet love, today and every day,” and added, “In a world as cold as stone / Must I walk this path alone / Be with me now,” from the song, “Breath of Heaven,” a 1997 tune she did with Grover Washington, Jr. By far, this was the best pop concert for Kahilu’s 2018/2019 season. Bravo!
Message in a Bottle | Lost in the Music| Rock and Roll | Immigrant Song/Fragile | Blues in the Night/Laid in Earth | Heart and Soul/Fever/ Guitar/Cajon Solo | Superstar/ How Can I Ease the Pain | Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Miss You |
Gimme Shelter/Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)
Read my interview with Lisa Fischer here: https://www.bigislandmusic.net/talking-story-with-grammy-award-winning-singer-ms-lisa-fischer/
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby