All words: Alan Pyke
Most of the Howard Theatre shows I’ve been to since the historic venue’s grand reopening have been loud, crowded, and (for D.C. at least) dancy. But on Friday, the place was buttoned up for Raul Midón, with tables criss-crossing the dancefloor and crowded with people sitting, drinking, nibbling. The contrast between Howard-as-dancehall and the sit-down edition is sort of like the difference between throwing a party because your parents are out of town, and having a very formal graduation party under their watchful eye.
But there was nothing stiff about this crowd. Midón could take the starch out of a military collar with his guitar if he wanted to, and I don’t think anybody felt pressured to be on their best behavior. Instead, with the clink of glasses and a barely-audible murmur of chatter rising up into the handful of silences between songs and stories and raucous ovations, it felt like the cinematic version of a 1940s jazz club.
But I digress. You probably want to hear about one of the greatest living guitar players, performing on a brand-new custom-built guitar for the first time, attacking his instrument five different ways, each unlike anything you’ve seen done to an acoustic guitar, all while wrapping his silky voice around melodies that would be at home on a Stevie Wonder record.
Raul Midón is a sight, though it feels cruel to say so of a musician blinded in infancy. Uncomfortable or not, it’s true: Standing upright in a dark jacket, grey fedora, large sunglasses and bigger grin, Midón produced the signature blend of gentle plucking and percussive attack that defines his on-record sound. But seeing how he gets that paradoxical set of sounds out of one instrument, without technological aid, is breathtaking. There are at least three and maybe five separate axes of motion going on with his right hand. One looks like a flat thumping on the strings, like playing a conga, but with such precision that he’s able to lay down a rhythmic chord progression with the flat of his hand without interfering with the melody.
The melody’s coming from that same hand, using a combination of these other two distinct playing motions. In one his fingers curl up to pluck, but this is not your grandaddy’s fingerpicking. It involves the wrist more, there’s more motion to it overall, and it produces these bright, clear runs of notes, moving above and through the chords he’s spanking out.
His melodies often feature a harmonic or two that burst forth cleanly from complexity, and it was astonishing on Friday to watch him routinely, effortlessly pull these overtones out for a second, then dive back into the impossible intricacy where he’s so at home. And where the overtones are unmistakably coming from the guitar, the impeccable trumpet solos he sang initially had me looking to the wings for a horn player. But no, he’s just taught himself how to perfectly mimic the sound of a muted, bluesy trumpet. And has a sharp enough ear and musical mind that, while juggling rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic elements on one guitar, he can toss in another ball and keep guitar and trumpet working off of one another beautifully.
On “Sunshine,” he decided to just completely blow our minds. His assistant came up and helped him orient himself toward the bongos that had sat at his left elbow to that point. Then he played the guitar melody with his left hand only, by hammering and pulling on the neck, while playing the bongos with his right. After running through the melody once, to incredulous applause, he grinned and warned, “Be careful when you try this at home.” And then, just to make it all harder, he started in singing one of those slow-building, electric, Stevie-Wonderesque melodies. It about brought the house down, but he was barely halfway into his set. (He later explained that he taught himself to play guitar and drums at once after hearing a fellow virtuoso guitar player and deciding he needed to step his game up. For Midón, showmanship is equal parts professional obligation and point of personal pride. And there’s so much soul and love in his music that the show never felt like virtuosity for its own sake. It’s as much joyful as it is jawdropping.)
Midón made this experience feel special with more than just his playing. After “Sunshine,” he started to explain how reggae rhythms have always captivated him. He said he always wanted to be able to play a reggae bassline together with the up-beat guitar line, to be able to play reggae on one instrument. Told us the story of the day he sat down to work it out — “See I have nothing…else…to do…but work on this stuff all day” — and then showed us how he’d managed to combine the two. That was amazing, drew some applause, but the story wasn’t over. He called it a day, went upstairs and poured himself a cognac, thought about what he’d achieved and told himself “Raul, you are a bad motherfucker,”– but then realized he hadn’t tried to layer in the vocal yet! Returned downstairs, newly cognac’d, and tried to put all three together only to have the bass/guitar simulcast go all fuzzy on him…but that fuzzy, liquor-aided version had turned into the melody for “Invisible Chains,” one of his best songs. That he took the time to show us the genesis of that melody made the night feel even more intimate.
After a few more tunes, with the audience revving into higher and higher gear for each successive ovation, he stopped to tell us about his new guitar. Tembererana, as he’s named it, was built custom to his frame and unique playing style by “one of the world’s great guitar makers,” Jeff Traugott. He’d only had it a week, and hadn’t expected to want to play it for shows so quickly, but is quite obviously in love with it. He made up a name for it, made up a song to go by that name, played it for us — lovely tune, fit for recreation after a hard day’s work, culled from an Argentine rhythm called ‘carnavalito.’
He took a break from the guitar to play piano for a song, and flex his pipes. His voice is astonishing, with almost operatic control in a few different octaves, and he can inject some high-octane soul into it when he wants to. He did just that towards the end of his set, taking “State Of Mind” in three different directions, one hushed, another furiously paced and embellished, then finally sounding like D’Angelo for the final third. He retreated to the wings, and the crowd burst into the most tenacious, sustained, hungry encore call I’ve experienced in a long time. When he returned, the plan was apparently to play just one more– his assistant popped back up to escort him offstage, but Raul waved him off. People were crying out for “Waited All My Life,” and he has happy to indulge us.