Flambeau players Brent Rampone, Doug Dayson, Steve Parks, and Tom Rigney (photograph by Linda Dembo)
This afternoon I made my first foray into the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF) to listen to Tom Rigney and the group he formed called Flambeau. Working with this group, Rigney has built up both a repertoire and a catalog of recordings, most of which involve different approaches to “roots.” These styles include Cajun, zydeco, blues, funky grooves from New Orleans, ballads, and waltzes. Rigby leads the group on violin and takes most of the vocals. The rest of the group consists of pianist Caroline Dahl, Steve Parks on bass guitar, and drummer Brent Rampone. For this performance the group was joined by a guest artist, guitarist Doug Dayson, a venerable veteran of Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band.
Note that “most of” qualifier, though. The most engaging waltz that Flambeau played actually came from an opera aria, “O mio babbino caro” (oh my dear daddy) from Giacomo Puccini’s one-act Gianni Schicchi. The treatment was strictly instrumental, but the spirit of the music was as clear as if one were encountering it on an opera stage. Equally engaging was the group’s approach to George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” from his opera, Porgy and Bess. Then there was Rigney’s own Irish influences, which he acknowledged in a piece called “Guinness and Gumbo.”
The real surprise of the afternoon came from what I have always felt was a classic in the New Orleans blues repertoire. The program would have not been true to its roots, so to speak, without an account of “The House of the Rising Sun.” It would be hard to enumerate how many different approaches have been taken to the traditional folk song that probably deserves the label “New Orleans classic” more than any other. However, Rigney gave his version a longer than usual introduction, which gave absolutely no hint of what was about to come. In fact the whole introduction wove its way around motifs from, of all places, Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo.” Setting aside any connotations of Jewish tradition, was Rigney trying to tell us that he really wanted to be a cellist?
Any kidding aside, what made this afternoon fun was not only the extended breadth of Rigney’s take on “roots” traditions but also they ways in which he could draw on unexpected sources to put his own personal stamp on each number. He has been a YBGF regular for several years. It was clear from looking over the audience that he had built up quite a fan base. It was just as clear than many of those fans had come to dance as well as to listen, making the whole affair a truly festive visual offering. Both my wife and I were blown away by the whole occasion, so I suppose we have increased the size of his fan base by two!