On an absolutely beautiful and very warm evening (is it really November?) Penelope and I went over to The Grove on Mission, which recently opened. It's very similar to its funky sibling on Fillmore. We grabbed some food to go and had dinner in Yerba Buena Gardens, watching the descending sun bring out amazing colors in the tall hotels surrounding the park. It was calm and quiet, quite different from the electric air that enveloped the City after yesterday's parade for the Giants.
After dinner we made our way over to the Herbst Theater- my third night in a row there, her second, to catch Natacha Atlas, who's in town as part of the SFJazz Festival. Atlas is of British and Egyptian descent and her early career was firmly rooted in Arabic pop, which she has moved away from in her last two albums to a more acoustic, natural sound, in a sense attempting to pick up the mantle of Fairuz. Penelope, always game for something new, had no idea what to expect. I expected something totally different from what we experienced and I'm sorry to say we were left somewhat dumbfounded by this performance, which ranks pretty high on the "wtf was that?" scale and not in a good way.
Atlas, surrounded by Louai Al Henawi on the ney, Samy Bishai on violin, Andy Hamill on a Rube Goldberg bass/keyboard contraption (and harmonica), Aly El Minyawi on percussion and Alcyone Mick on piano, strode onto the stage in a gold, elaborately decorated dress and sat down in front of a music stand and a microphone. For the next hour she looked at the music stand more than the audience, reading the lines of the songs, and apparently most of her between-song remarks. In fact she barely looked at the audience. I don't think I've ever seen a more uncomfortable looking performer onstage in my life. At some point I thought she would stand up, but she never did, until she announced the band would take a short break and then return.
Was this some kind of meta-performance piece? It almost seemed like one except there was no tip of the hat to let the audience in on it. I don't speak Arabic, so perhaps the songs were about being trapped, stuck, imprisoned or confined, perhaps. If so, then maybe this performance made sense. But Atlas's delivery never displayed any emotion to lead one to think this may be the case. The music was pretty much the same song after song. It was sleep-inducing. It was boring, even though the music was never uninteresting and Atlas has a fantastic voice of impressive depth. But there was no reason at all to experience it as a performance, at least delivered this way.
When the lights came up, I looked at Penelope and could tell she was done. Frankly, I was too. I walked her to the MUNI station, and on my way home decided to give the show one more chance, hoping it would have some kind of darkness and light thematic arc to it or at least that Atlas would stand up in the second half and sing songs she had committed to memory.
Ten minutes in to the second half, I knew this wasn't going to be the case. Life is short, and there are too many other things to do- like catch up on writing this blog and spending time with my cat who must feel pretty neglected this week. I can't tell you how it ended- I wasn't there, but I would bet serious money it didn't get any better.
Truly bewildering- but at least my cat is happy I'm home early.