The strength, to date, of the inaugural world music series at the Hollywood Bowl has been found in the exploration of the indigenous and exotic. Save for Brazilian Carlinhos Brown, whose music is an invigorating fusion of Africa, America and his native land, these concerts hold listener interest by exposing isolated pockets from four continents to another under a thematic, rather than regional, rubric. The minute it got close to home, i.e. American pop, sense of discovery vanished.
“Hallelujah!,” the title for an evening of four bands rooted in scared music traditions, slowed with an unsteady performance from the Campbell Bros. and a supper-club version of gospel music from headliners the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Evening was saved by an inspiring turn from Pakistan’s Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, the nephew of qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and a solemn turn from the Armenian Festival Ensemble.
The Clouds’ limp set was further wounded by inane between-song banter that was misguided and mean-spirited. Their six-song show not only never caught fire, but they also overloaded their gospel core with disco and schmaltz, even making their audience suffer through a lifeless rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings” and a confused version of the Isley Bros.’ “Shout” that, for no apparent reason, started in the middle of the song.
Clouds were preceded and later joined by the Campbell Bros., who perform on pedal steel and lap steel guitars. On their Arhoolie disc “Pass Me Not,” Chuck and Darick Campbell display ferocious technique that overshadows brother Phillip on guitar and singer Katie Jackson. In concert, the inverse was true, with Jackson booming over eight midtempo numbers that desperately required an unwavering beat. Neither steel guitarist was given a chance to shine and only when the two groups united was brother Carlton able to lock in the rhythm on drums.
Rahat, whose debut solo recording has sat in the vaults of American Recordings for several years, was far more inspiring. With his late uncle, Rahat supplied a high-pitched counterpoint that pushed Nusrat into the nether reaches; as a leader he relies on a steady and buoyant stream of vocals against which he improvises. His backing unit is his uncle’s Party, whose members supply the same magical support for the kin as the elder, the key exception being Rahat’s occasional straying from the proper key. Playing of tablas and harmonium and the vocal gymnastics came together in the stunningly furious finale “Akhiyaan Udiekdiyaa.”
The Armenian Festival Ensemble performed the evening’s most traditional spiritual music, majority of it based on a rustic woodwind’s drone and dirge-like layers. Pieces defied categorization as each work was distinct unto itself, sharing elements with music from Jewish and Catholic ceremonies as well as soothing New Age.