Stop me if you've heard this one: A piano savant, a reality TV star and NPR's senior White House correspondent walk into the Hollywood Bowl ... Or how about the mega-famous band from Portland, Ore., that wouldn't touch indie rock with a 10-foot pole? Oh, you haven't heard that one? Well, both are about Portland mini-orchestra Pink Martini, which will class up the Morrison Center Thursday, July 11, with tunes from across the pop spectrum.
Pink Martini was conceived in the mid-'90s by bandleader Thomas Lauderdale as a way to spiff up the fundraising events he frequented as a member of Portland's political class. Lauderdale wanted to run for mayor one day and would be damned if he had to do so with a tinny PA playing Bruce Springsteen.
But it didn't take long before "Sympathique," the band's first single, became such a runaway smash in France that people mistook it for an Edith Piaf tune, and running for mayor took a backseat to performing around the world with vocalist China Forbes and the 10-piece orchestra Lauderdale formed to back himself.
Forbes' sultry voice is the kind one rarely hears outside of Bond theme songs. Combined with her ability to sing in 15 languages and Lauderdale's composition skills, the band's national and international accolades grew with albums like Hang on Little Tomato and Hey Eugene!, and performances everywhere from the Cannes Film Festival to Carnegie Hall.
But last year, Forbes developed polyps on her vocal cords and that voice went away, meaning the band was in deep trouble.
"Thomas called me in a panic and said, 'China lost her voice,' and said he needed me to fly to D.C. and sing with the National Symphony Orchestra," singer Storm Large told Boise Weekly in a phone interview. "And when I was like, 'When?' He said, 'Five days.' And I was like, 'No.'"
Large changed her mind and went to work learning the band's material as quickly as possible. But there was a far higher hill for her to climb. Though her voice was equally commanding as Forbes', Large, a cast member on reality TV show Rock Star: Supernova, had an image about as far removed from Pink Martini's class as Pink Martini's was from Portland's rock scene.
"There was this weird blonde bag of pits where the singer should be and I instantly look like a whore, some trollop where China should be," said Large.
But it worked better than she expected and Large quickly figured out the key to playing with an orchestra instead of a rock band.
"I just don't talk about cocks on stage," she said. "That's really the trick. Don't talk about cocks."
But Large had to expand her vocabulary in other ways, as well. Filling in for China meant doing so in a dozen-plus languages which Large does not speak.
"Russian is probably the hardest because the consonants get stacked together," said Large, who worked with a vocal coach to learn the songs phonetically. "And surprisingly, French. Even that has linguistic similarities in the written word. French is so fucking easy to say something horrible by accident."
For example, when Large was attempting to joke with French audiences that Lauderdale looks like a baby duck, "le petit canard," she had been saying "le petit connard," which translates somewhere between "little motherfucker" and "little bastard." She found that out only after repeatedly making the joke across the whole of France.
"The most important thing to learn to say in French is, 'I'm so sorry; I'm an American. Your language is so beautiful, but hard to learn,'" said Large. "Then you can pretty much get away with anything."
Large managed to hold and twist her tongue long enough to get upgraded to a permanent band member, taking turns fronting Pink Martini with Forbes and performing on the band's new album, Get Happy.
Though she did have a bit of trouble holding her tongue when introduced to the band's other occasional vocalist, Ari Shapiro.
"I was like, 'Who is this gorgeous hunk of gay meat?'" Large chuckled.
Shapiro performs with the band when he can get time off from his day job as NPR's senior White House correspondent.
"He is so annoyingly perfect in every possible way," said Large. "He should be detestable. But I love him with the ferocity of a thousand tire fires on the sun. He is a just a saint."
Guest vocals on Get Happy were also performed by Phyllis Diller, Rufus Wainwright and more. And that's to say nothing of songs sung in Farsi and Romanian.
For Large, singing a Romanian song in Romania actually stands out as one of the biggest moments for her since she joined Pink Martini.
"They have their independence, but you wouldn't know it," she said. "It's such a sad, beaten-down country full of beautiful people and beautiful land. But they are beaten down by Germany, by Russia. And here we are, these fluffy dorks from Oregon, and the roar and the sigh, and we start singing in Romanian, women literally clutching their chests in total disbelief that we were performing one of their songs. It really hit home--the importance and power of music as a language, as a universal medium. It made the room explode. It felt like they were going to eat us."
Boise's audience isn't likely to eat the band or treat it quite like The Beatles arriving in America, but the group's tasteful frivolity is likely to be out in full force at the Morrison Center. Provided Large can keep it in check.
"I was a rock 'n' roll, silly, loud, dirty-pants, all the way to the balls," she said. "But I really am just enjoying doing what I'm doing regardless of what people expect from me. I'm still going to put on a good show, if I'm wearing some nice gown and singing an Irving Berlin song, or on my knees talking about cocks."