James Lambeth has a gorgeous voice and has selected a good list of Duke Ellington standards for his tribute ‘Drop Me Off in Harlem.’ It’s a lovely tour through some of the finest music of the last century, but the music doesn’t shine as much in live performance as one would hope. While Lambeth croons with a full, chewy tone, as creamy and rich as a treasured dessert, he lacks presence onstage when he is not lost in the music and his self-consciousness between songs is unnecessary.
His band, bassist Brian Sheils and pianist Steve Hamilton are competent – Hamilton bright and rambling on the keys, and Sheils attempting some jazzy licks – but it’s Lambeth’s voice that holds this concert together. Choosing a handful of broken-hearted, lost-love tunes, the singer’s smooth, throaty vibrato coats the lyrics in melancholy and nostalgia: the kind of nostalgia you don’t want to get over.
The crowd was less than respectful, giving no applause for instrumental solos and nodding off occasionally. It’s not the most rousing music, but it deserves an audience who can stay alert, and it was disappointing to know that these great songs were drifting into certain bench-warmers’ dreams. Perhaps this heightened the awkwardness of Lambeth’s admittedly bashful public-speaking skills, but it was unseemly to hear someone with such easy talent berate himself between songs. Without the chatter, I’ve no doubt that a willing crowd could feel themselves transported to Jazz Age uptown Manhattan.
During the end of the last number, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’, Lambeth finally let loose and belted with power and confidence: at this point I was sad not to hear the concert again from song one with that level of passion infused into each tune. Hopefully for the rest of the run Lambeth will forget his baseless nerves and offer his excellent voice with the same abandon.