Integrating classical themes into rock ‘n’ roll — as evidenced by the dunderheaded noodling of, say, Emerson, Lake & Palmer — is about as easy as mixing oil and water, largely because literal translation between the two is all but impossible.
Then again, ex-Hooter Rob Hyman and Rick Chertoff weren’t striving for note-for-note recreation when they decided to develop Largo, a collection of songs based on themes from Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony (a work itself inspired by indigenous American music). As such, Largo is neither as lofty or as snobbish as it might sound at first blush.
Wednesday’s show, billed as a one-time-only staging of the song cycle brought together a goodly number of the vocalists — Joan Osborne, Cyndi Lauper, Taj Mahal, David Forman and Willie Nile among them — who joined in the making of Largo.
With Hyman acting as emcee and musical director, the singers meshed effectively in a variety of solo and group performances. Particularly riveting were Osborne’s take on the tearjerking “An Uncommon Love” and Nile’s impassioned reading of “Medallion,” which transposed a classic American working-man’s plaint to the voice of a Pakistani immigrant cab driver.
At times, the show was maddening — particularly when musical epiphanies like the dark, swampy “Disorient Express” or the Lauper-sung blues-rocker “White Man’s Melody” gave way to slick pop ditties (like the hoary “Gimme a Stone”) that would fit right in as background music on a J. Crew infomercial. Eric Bazilian’s sardonic guitar lines and engaging hurdy-gurdy playing piqued interest even in the more trite passages, but even he couldn’t salvage a few pieces.
Fortunately, lack of rehearsal kept things from getting too sanitary — a condition that occasionally stifles the project’s recorded version, which was released this week on Mercury — giving the proceedings the air of a party, more than an Event.
That vibe was most evident when Gotham doo-wop demi-legends Little Isidore and the Inquisitors seized the stage for a soaring “Before the Mountain,” where they remained to back Norwegian thrush Sissel for a version of “Goin’ Home” (originally made famous by Paul Robeson) that ended the evening on a poignant yet joyful note.