June 23, 2008

Paul Brings Bit of Manhattan to the Pabst

By Dave Tianen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jun. 23--It was perhaps a paltry miracle for a wizard of his stature, but on Saturday night, Les Paul moved the island of Manhattan 740 miles west.

As every serious jazzer and guitar maven can tell you, every Monday night, the Wizard of Waukesha holds court at a Manhattan club called the Iridium. But Paul was back in town over the weekend for the opening of Discovery World's new Les Paul's House of Sound exhibit and a benefit concert at the Pabst Theater on behalf of the project. For the occasion, the Pabst was transformed into a working facsimile of the Iridium, with fans seated at tables up on stage and circulating waitresses serving drinks.

And the performance itself was very much in the mode of the Iridium gigs. Those shows invariably turn into high-end talent shows, with friends and talented guests joining Les and his trio on stage for what turns into a kind of freewheeling variety show. In his introduction to tap dancer Andrew Nemr, Paul -- as he often does -- put it best: "I love to have a variety of people, and you're one of the varieties. If we don't have an elephant act, we always have a tap dancer."

Saturday's cavalcade included 8-year-old blues guitar prodigy Tallan "T-Man" Latz of Elkhorn. Tallan is a promising little talent, although it's still a new breed of strange to see an 8-year-old guitar whiz in shades singing "I got a real, real, real bad feelin' that my baby don't love me no more."

On the adult side, Sonya Hensley demonstrated striking range on her reading of Gershwin's "Summertime" and violinist Christian Howes delivered an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the jazz standard "Tenderly." Probably the crowd favorite was another hometown guitar hero: Jon Paris, who led the crowd in a call-and-response romp through "Let the Good Times Roll" and followed up with equally rousing takes on "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Mystery Train."

The trio had its share of moments as well on a succession of standards that included "Blue Skies,""Lazy River,""Embraceable You" and "September Song." Saturday's show included two sets spread over three hours. Ninety-three-year-old guitarists with badly arthritic hands are entitled to pick their spots, and Paul understandably does so. He can still wow them. It might be a beautifully improvised line on "Over the Rainbow" or an octave shift on "Tennessee Waltz," but every now and then, there's a flash of the old form.

Of course, there's more than just music at play here. This was an opportunity to share oxygen with a beloved, homegrown legend whose vision and innovation have rippled through modern music for 70 years. That's worth seeing even without the elephant act.


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