Chris Botti and his Band know how to rock a house.
“There are a few things that make us different from other bands,” announced popular trumpeter Chris Botti from the stage in the concert hall at The Music Center at Strathmore.
The tall, slender, handsome blond looked out at the packed house, filled with an upbeat and diverse crowd, a true slice of life of the region.
“My band members are all legends. First of all, unlike any other band, first of all, we are on time,” he said. The crowd collectively looked at its watch as it laughed and nodded. It was 8:02 p.m.
“We spend 250 days a year on the road – and we LIKE each other.”
The crowd roared as his bandmates triumphantly raised their hands in agreement.
“And, we dress up.”
About midway through the show, Botti did something else unusual. He urged the audience to pull out its cellphones to take photos, tweet and take video.
“But, put your cameras down if I fall off the stage or do something stupid.”
The barriers went down and the cellphones went up. This writer quickly posted two short clips to Facebook.
He was gracious in the praise he lavished on his bandmates, and he was correct. Including Botti, who held his vintage Martin Committee Large Bore Handcraft trumpet made in 1939 in his arms like a newborn babe. Joining him onstage was the amazing, barefoot violinist and actress Lucia Micarelli (She played the role of musician Annie Talarico in HBO’s television series “Treme.”). She collaborated with Botti on the recording of their hit, “Emmanuel,” but rarely is able to join him on tour. So, her appearance was a treat.
Also onstage on the piano was Grammy Award nominated pianist and composer Geoffrey Keezer; renowned bassist Richie Goods on acoustic bass (who also played electric guitar), Australian Ben Butler on electric and acoustic guitar, the phenomenal Lee Pearson on drums, Ben Stivers on the keyboard and synthesizer, featured vocalist and singer-songwriter Sy Smith, and operatic tenor Chad Johnson.
Individually, each of these musicians could have attracted an adoring crowd. Putting them together onstage was nuclear fusion.
As the audience seated itself, the stage, set with the band’s instruments, was bathed in a red glow spiked by violet beams of light.
Botti wore a black silk Mad Men suit with a white shirt and narrow black tie. The band members sported black suits or all-black outfits. In the light, Micarelli’s one-shoulder evening dress changed from black to navy and back again. Smith wore a dramatic fuchsia gown with one long sheer chiffon sleeve and Johnson’s suit was a silken gray.
As the band struck up, it was clear the audience was there to hear Botti and – from his first note to his last – he did not disappoint.
The man can hold a note for a seemingly infinite amount of time, play softly, sweetly and seductively – or rip through a rock ballad.
And, that was the surprise.
At first, Botti and the band performed with a jazzy vibe. One could almost feel transported to a long-ago smoke-filled Copacabana or a small, hipster joint in Greenwich Village. But, not CBGB’s! But, the evening segued from jazz, to rock ‘n roll, soul, R&B and heavy metal, to opera – and back.
Interspersed with his solos, or haunting, heavenly horn performances, Botti’s bandmates each had at least one strong solo, sometimes more.
Baltimore native Lee Pearson brought the house down with his very physical drum solos. This wizard can play a tune with his sticks even when both arms are wrapped behind his back. When he was done, the sticks went flying.
There was a strong physicality to Micarelli’s performance, too. She strutted and leaped across the stage, bending into her instrument and wielding her bow like a lover’s caress – or a sword. Similarly, Richie Goods brought the goods with his innovative bass solo. He did things with that instrument the audience hadn’t seen – or heard – before.
And, who would even consider an opera star as part of a jazz and rock infused performance? Botti did. Chad Johnson, who vocalizes occasionally with the group, provided a winning element with his performance. And, Sy Smith had the audience on its feet when she and Botti walked off the stage and into the audience.
Compared to Janet Jackson and Diana Ross, Smith can more than hold her own – and she had the house in the palm of her manicured hand.
Back onstage, in a playful duet, she held her mic like a trumpet and used her voice to imitate the sounds of Botti’s horn. As his horn soared to sweet, angelic heights, so did she. When he emitted an almost painful squeal, she responded in kind.
Early on, Botti and Micarelli warmed up the crowd with their hit “Emmanuel.” The hall resonated with their sweet notes; sad, lonely ones, and the emotional sound of longing.
To “set up” for one of Pearson’s drum riffs, the band rolled into “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
Chad Johnson performed with Botti in “Con Te Partiro/Time to Say Goodbye.” Botti wrote the lyrics –in English and Italian – and musician friend Andrea Bocelli wrote the music.
The evening had some comedy, too. At the expense of late-comers who had front row seats. When they were finally in their seats, Botti and the band did a one minute riff on “what you missed.”
In another one of the evening’s surprises, a row of seats up front remained empty. Botti called for the house lights to be turned on. He asked all the young music students in the house to stand. Looking up into the balcony where at least a dozen were standing, he invited them to come down and take a seat in the empty row. He turned and instructed the ushers to guide them in. Amazing.
Early in the show a young girl surprised him with a bouquet of yellow roses and wished him a Happy 54th Birthday (his big day was October 12). Late in the show, he invited the grade-schooler up on stage and handed the surprised child a tambourine to play. At the show’s conclusion, he had her take a bow.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.
An Evening with Chris Botti played on Thursday, October 20, 2016, at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 North Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, Maryland. For future events, go to their calendar of events. Here is information on Chris Botti’s tour schedule.
Review #2: ‘An Evening with Chris Botti’ at Strathmore by Gina Jun on DCMetroTheaterArts.