Monday, May 29, 2006

Raul Midon: A World of Music in One Man 

I mentioned last week that I was fortunate that my friend Jenn got me invited to see Thomas Dolby perform two sets at Joe's Pub. Thomas is the music director of the TED conference and the first set was actually a "salon" for TED members in NYC. Thomas was showcasing a few performers who might be invited to perform at future TED events and one of them was Raul Midon.

For those of us who had never heard of Midon, his introduction was an odd event. The woman from TED introduced him with effusive praise and then disappeared. The stage darkened to a spotlight. And then a stagehand came onstage carefully wending his way through amplifiers and cords carrying a guitar. It slowly became clear that his caution was due to the fact that he was leading a hiply dressed man onstage in the near darkness. As they entered the spotlight, suddenly a different version of the truth emerged: Mr. Midon is blind.

We watched curiously as the stagehand strapped an acoustic guitar onto Midon. I noticed that on each finger of his right hand was a plastic finger pick. Once everything was in place, the stagehand graciously crept away and Mr. Midon took command of the room. He announced, "Usually I talk a lot more, but I have to catch a 10pm flight to Paris, so I'm just going to get right into it."

The next thing is that Midon starts singing and playing. First of all, it must be said that the closest and easiest reference for Midon's singing voice is Stevie Wonder. That immediately makes everyone sit up and take notice. A blind man singing like Stevie Wonder? Is he going to be original?

After a few seconds, I get past the voice and am drawn to the energy of his guitar playing. As the first few minutes of the song go by, I begin to observe that he's getting every damn sound out of the guitar that might be possible. He starts by playing somewhat flamenco-style, courtesy of his flying finger picks. In another section of the song, he strums it folk-style. He starts adding drum beats by banging the face and the sides. Suddenly, he's playing it slap-style and I find myself thinking about Jaco Pastorius on "Heavy Weather". I'm reminded of Tom Dowd in The Language of Music saying of Clapton and Allman's playing during their "Layla" duet, "Those notes aren't even in the instruments...they're only in their fingers."

As if this were not enough, all of a sudden I find myself hearing Herb Alpert-style trumpeting. I start scanning the stage. I thought this was a solo act? I squint. It dawns on me. He's mimicking trumpet...with his mouth. And playing, and singing. Needless to say, the crowd went nuts when the "trumpet" solo peaked.

As soon as I got home, a hazy memory emerged of having heard something about Midon last summer on NPR. So I went back to the site and - sure enough - I found a handful of his appearances on a range of shows.

Here's where you can learn more:

1) World Cafe: Start here because here Midon is playing live. You can get a sense of why I was so amazed when I heard him performing solo.

2) Tavis Smiley: If you're interested in his blindness, his twin brother who is a rocket scientist (!), and how he came up with his sound(s), this is a good clip.

3) Weekend Edition: This is a good clip if you are interested in buying the album. You can listen to three studio tracks.

Check him out.
Cory and I saw Raul play live at Scullers in Boston last night and he is an awesome talent indeed. He plays guitar with a physicality that only a blind person could ever concoct, and his mouth trumpet improvisation would be a gimmick if it weren't so damn good. As I suspected, his recorded music doesn't convey the magnitude of his gift (which frustrates the producer wannabe in me), but he is a tour de force in any case. Wow!
I'm so glad you guys got to seem him play out. I'm thinking it is quite possible that some day in the not too distant future that it will be hard to see him perform in small, intimate spaces; so it's great to catch him play the little joints while we still can.

Also, I agree the album is not nearly as compelling as he is live, which is why I specifically linked to the live performance on NPR as the first place folks should check him out.
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