Judge Clark Douglas still wonders why Josh Groban never returns his phone calls.
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The PBS special Angelique Kidjo and Friends: Spirit Rising may look like a standard-issue hour of public television, but it breaks away from conventional programming in a number of subtle ways. It's not presented as a traditional concert, as there are interview excerpts between each song in which Kidjo talks about the history behind the tune she's about to sing or about the nature of her relationship with the next guest star. Nor does the disc function as a documentary on Kidjo, as we're only given quick snippets of her life and career outside of her performance. Additionally, there's the distinct sense that we're only seeing a portion of a concert, as some abrupt edits suggest that large chunks of a bigger performance have been cut (indeed, a CD presentation of the concert features several songs that don't appear at any point during this special). The organization is a little haphazard, but it's a solid hour of warm, tuneful Kidjo-ness, and I suppose that's all that matters.
The African singer is noted for her diverse musical influences, and the most fascinating thing about this disc is the manner in which Kidjo so easily absorbs so many styles and musical genres into her own distinctive, uplifting style. For instance, the disc kicks off with off with a terrific cover of Gershwin's "Summertime" (performed in her native tongue), and then she duets with Josh Groban on the feminist anthem "Pearls." Groban is perhaps the only guest star who seems a little out of place, as his voice seems somewhat at odds with the song's arrangement, but it's still a nice number. Dianne Reeves turns up for a lovely performance of "Monfe Ran E/Baby I Love You," and appears later for a surprisingly jubilant take on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Branford Marsalis turns up to help out with an even more unexpected cover: "Ravel's Bolero."
The DVD transfer is exceptional, boasting strong detail and depth throughout. The audio track isn't exactly room-rattling, but it gets the job done well enough and delivers the music with energetic clarity. Extras include a handful of bonus songs (so that's where they went!) and a backstage interview with Kidjo.
While I can't help but feel that a 90-minute presentation of the full concert (perhaps aided by some supplemental materials further outlining Kidjo's activism) might have been more satisfying, Angelique Kidjo and Friends: Spirit Rising is a lively, accessible and appealing way for newcomers to experience the music of this prolific and underrated artist. Give it a look, particularly if you're looking for an easily-digested entry point into African music.
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