Wild Rivers/Mercury Lounge/August 8, 2018

    Khalid Yassein started writing songs on an acoustic guitar at age 11, but this private hobby was for his own enjoyment, not for the public. While studying biology at college in Kingston, Canada, Yassein worked briefly as an ophthalmic technician, a student researcher, a camp counsellor, and a Special Olympics swimming coach. From 2012 to 2015, he also performed with fellow student Devan Glover as an acoustic duo called Devan & Khalid. A debut EP garnered national radio airplay and the duo was named Toronto’s Best New Artist in the 2015 CBC Searchlight contest. Further recording led to an expansion of ranks in 2015, adding drummer Ben Labenski and bassist/guitarist Andrew Oliver, both from Oakville, Canada, as the ensemble became the indie-folk quartet Wild Rivers. Wild Rivers followed a 2016 debut album with an EP, Eighty-Eight, released on June 22, 2018.

    Wild Rivers has been categorized as folk music, but at Mercury Lounge the band’s music was probably closer to the contemporary singer/songwriter or Americana genres than the Woody Guthrie folk era. The songs featured strong pop melodies, soft acoustic arrangements and warm vibes, but the killer touch was the vocal braiding by Yassein and Glover. Their crisscrossing harmonies shimmered vibrantly, such that even the downer lyrics of “Call It a Night”, which described an unraveling relationship, sounded joyous. For the encore, the band unplugged and sang the dream-chasing lyrics to “Howlin'” from the center of the room. Wild Rivers has described its music as “folk ‘n’ roll ‘n’ country soul” and tonight this seemed to be a valid-enough description.


 

Paul McDonald/Mercury Lounge/August 8, 2018

    Born in Auburn, Ala., and raised 200 miles away in Huntsville, Paul McDonald played high school varsity football and was in the school’s play, The Wizard of Oz. Starting in 2005, he sang with Hightide Blues. In 2010, the band members moved to Nashville, Tenn., and launched a campaign to let their fans choose a new name for the band. The band was renamed The Grand Magnolias and released a self-titled album. About the same time, McDonald competed in American Idol‘s 10th season, in which he placed eighth, and toured in the 2011 American Idols Live Tour. McDonald married actress Nikki Reed, the two recorded an album together. In 2015, after a divorce and the break-up of his former band, McDonald left his life in Los Angeles, and relocated to East Nashville, Tenn. McDonald’s debut solo album, Modern Hearts, was released on June 1, 2018.

    Paul McDonald’s debut album has layers of production in order to create a big, booming sound, but at Mercury Lounge, opening for RIVVRS, McDonald performed his living room show, with just a silken voice and an acoustic guitar. As such, his high timber gave a prominently vulnerable texture to his cadre of soulful lyrics touching on emotional pain and redemption. McDonald was on the mend as he wrote these simmering songs, and tonight’s naked interpretations underlined his search for renewed spiritual strength and solace. The songs embraced this quest, moving meditatively beyond sorrow and solitude to personal healing and hopefulness. This was the sweetness of McDonald’s set; he captured universal sentiments and turned them into uplifting and invigorating anthems.


 

Jason Mraz/SummerStage at Rumsey Playfield/August 9, 2018

    Jason Mraz was a member of the cheerleading squad, school chorus, and drama club while attending high school in Mechanicsville, Va. He starred as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and as Snoopy in a play about the Peanuts characters. After high school, Mraz briefly attended drama school in New York City and university in Farmville, Va., but in 1999 settled in San Diego. Mraz entered the music community as a roadie for the band Elgin Park and also performed weekly in a coffeehouse. Success hit with his second album in 2005. Mraz has sold over seven million albums and won two Grammy Awards, two Teen Choice Awards, a People’s Choice Award and the Hal David Starlight Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His sixth and most recent studio album, Know. — a play on the previous album’s title, Yes!  — was released on Aug. 10, 2018.

    Following a three-month run as Dr. Pomatter in the Broadway musical Waitress this past February, Jason Mraz assembled his five-man/five-woman jumpsuit-clad band for a concert tour and returned to New York City to perform at SummerStage at Rumsey Playfield. The show was entitled Good Vibes, and indeed this is what Mraz transmitted to the audience, a feel-good experience brimming with a positive, uplifting spirit. Whether playing with the entire ensemble or scaling down to a few musicians on a handful of songs, an inherent cheerfulness was infectious and buoyed each song to higher ground, even when songs were drawn out extensively (“I’m Yours” was almost 10 minutes long). The breezy music had many influences, from soft pop to hip-hop and reggae, and the musicians often were given opportunities to shine in the spotlight, but the centerpiece always remained the highly animated Mraz and his winning, genial personality. Mraz’s charisma made the concert a perfect event for a hot summer evening.


 

Bobby Sanabria & his Multiverse Big Band/Damrosch Park Bandshell/August 10, 2018

    Hailing from the South Bronx, Bobby Sanabria attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music from 1975 to 1979, obtaining a Bachelor of Music degree and receiving the Faculty Association Award for his work as an instrumentalist. Returning to New York City, he played drums for dozens of well known artists, formed his own Latin jazz orchestra, and received numerous awards. In 2006, Sanabria was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame, having a street permanently named after him in recognition for his contributions to music and the arts. He is the leader of the Quarteto Aché, Sexteto Ibiano, Ascensión, and Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band. The latter’s most recent album, West Side Story Reimagined, released on July 4, 2018, honors the 60th anniversary of West Side Story with a contemporary Latin jazz reworking of the score; partial proceeds from the sale of the double CD set will benefit the Jazz Foundation of America’s Puerto Relief Fund to aid Bobby’s ancestral homeland after the devastation by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

    As part of the annual summer Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors festival, Sanabria and his 20-piece orchestra assembled on the Damrosch Park Bandshell to reinterpret West Side Story live. This would be an ambitious project. The original 1957 Broadway musical and its subsequent 1961 film version, inspired by William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, uniquely fused big band jazz, Latin rhythms, lyric opera, modern dance, and a controversial storyline about racial tensions and gang life in 1950s New York City. Perhaps accepting that no new take could ever parallel the original production, Sanabria’s adventurous interpretation was not meant to replace the original, but rather to see where modern Latin jazz arrangements and extended instrumental breaks could expand on the jazz explorations of the memorable score. The concert in large part was aided not by a script, vocals, choreography and drama, but by a slide show featuring both vintage and modern photographs of the Puerto Rican immigrant experience, with the visual aids progressively guiding and stimulating new sensations. Sanabria’s horns-and-percussion teamwork often recalled the familiar, while other movements seemed to have little correlation. The result was a lively, upbeat concert that was rich in innovation and celebrated the historical creativity of Puerto Rican salsa and Afro-Cuban jazz. Sanabria and company did a splendid job with this escapade, but it inherently begged for the vocals and dancing of the classic West Side Story.

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