Johann Chuckaree presents His Story: A Musical Journey – a review²

The long and short of it is that for $250 and with three hours of solid live music performances, Johann Chuckaree’s concert at the Queen’s Hall on Saturday June 18, His Story, was a value-for-money entertainment spectacle that signifies in this post-Taste-of-Carnival, post-COVID lock down T&T, that what these musicians and singers have been holding back for the past 24 months was awaiting the right event release valve to satisfy an eager audience slowly coming out once again for shows.

Chuckaree’s star-studded cast of guests, supported by a crack band featuring Enrico Camejo and Adrian Kong and others, provided for the engagement of a new kind of reckoning of what can make or break for audiences locally, or even internationally, if it ever comes to that. Singers of romantic ballads, island rock, reggae classics, Bollywood songs, and soca, real and revised, performed along with top instrumentalists on steelpan and piano, to balance the show with a kind of all-encompassing take of what is possible and available in this island. And it was not too much. Song and tune choice makes a difference in any show, and here it was just enough to not encourage grumbling murmurs, early walk-outs or flat applause responses.

Four steelpan musicians vied for the unenviable position of being the stand-out instrumental performer on Saturday. One can say the instrument was the stand-out. Icon Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe caressed his double second pans on Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as a solo piece, showcasing a tour de force display of simultaneous touch dexterity and musical knowledge to move music beyond the ordinary to the sublime. He then performed a duet with Chuckaree on “Trini to the Bone” that began a trend among the pannists that night, the steelpan duet with the concert’s headliner that drove the energy upwards and excitedly beyond.

Dane Gulston, Mister Excitement himself, who with Chuckaree proved that duelling pans can and do showcase their trademark sixteenth note rapid arpeggios, and can make for gleeful ovation as often as they can dance, play, and speedily run through all the notes on the pan. A better sound reinforcement that night may have put these displays over the top, but as examples of how the instrument can elicit positive responses from an audience in a concert hall outside of the Panorama ambience, this worked.

Joshua Regrello is a new kind of steelpan entertainer who is the full package of witty banter, self-effacing humour, and skilful playing. His multiple on and off entrances, jokingly and wordlessly cajoling the audience for a louder ovation every time, worked, even after four tries. A constant broad smile and a clear connection to the audience that he met at their level, he exuded fun and he entertained well. And, as if unaware of the make-up of the audience, he began a singing conversation with the audience that veered too much to the risqué, which comically forced Chuckaree to return and nip that adult banter in the bud. Their subsequent duet on a medley of soca hits dedicated to the recently passed Blaxx, climaxed with Chuckaree’s expected pan fireworks to which Regrello cheekily and plain-faced responded, “what you want me to do after that?” This young man can be a star somewhere sometime soon.

Johann Chuckaree, as a steelpan musician, can handily play any genre of music on his tenor pan with an impact that grabs audiences. As noted, his trademark rapid arpeggios that don’t move towards noise, continue to be a hallmark. Smooth jazz (Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good”), R&B-pop (Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk”), cha-cha-chá (Tito Puente/Santana’s “Oye Como Va”), the accessible pop of Sting and Alicia Keys are no challenge for him. The interesting musical conversations with other instruments, and singers for that matter, are where one looks for a movement, either towards popular uptake or towards a redefinition of the scope of the steelpan. Saturday night’s show was about satisfaction, and not necessarily over-exceeding audience expectations. On a show where the steelpan was the centre of attention, the hesitation towards an extraordinary experience was a small price to pay for an otherwise joyful event.

Chuckaree’s sister, ‘D Piano Girl’ Johanna, has taken soca music and added a pianistic flourish that comes from years of classical music training, to take the music to new places. Her ubiquity in the performing spaces, here and there, since her solo take of Kes’s “Savannah Grass”, has elevated that song, and was recognised as she reprised that song after an audience member shouted, “we want Savannah Grass,” with the understanding that Johanna’s version was expected! Her Machel Montano and Power Soca piano medleys have the kitschy appeal that makes local audiences happy, and so too that night.

The balance between strict instrumental music and vocalised songs was a major plus for the show. Genres exploded, and fusions were chanced, and no one complained. Island rock pioneer Nigel Rojas, recently severely injured in an accident that required surgery, stepped up to perform a couple songs with Chuckaree that re-introduced the pair as musical partners beyond the expected, both having co-composed a steelpan Panorama high-ranking tune. One can sense the connection as there was easy exchange between these friends and colleagues.

An easy exchange between performers is always welcomed on stage. One can sense that connections made beyond music in our circumscribed music space, works towards a better performance. Raymond Edwards, one of the finest male voices singing popular music outside of soca on this island, lent an air of sophistication to adult contemporary music here that might be currently missing for an older generation brought up in the 1960s. His duet of the old standard “Fly Me to the Moon” with the stunning Jolene Romain was pure magic. Their chemistry was palpable without being treacly and faux. She sparkled figuratively and literally: she announced as she came on stage, “give a round of applause for the dress” — a knee-length sequinned black number that spoke elegance, and got that applause and attention. Her duet with ‘D Piano Girl’ Johanna of a refined version of Patrice Roberts’s “Better Days”, points to the idea that soca lyricism can sometimes be the standout over novel reinterpretations of music. The message in these post-pandemic beginnings had resonance.

The culmination of any local concert has to be a climactic affair. After the taste of Erphaan Alves sprinting through his soca delivery, and the awe of Nishard M’s earlier whole flamboyant Bollywood moment with dancers in tow, both having the steelpan as accompaniment beyond adjunct, one was left to be moved by the arrival of Farmer Nappy reeling off three of his hits — “Backyard Jam”, “Hooking Meh”, and “Big People Party” — that elevated this concert to a point of satisfaction beyond a mere $250.

With an audience that half-filled the Hall, contrasting that weekend with the image of thousands “jamming naked” in the Savannah, one is left to consider how this show lines up with the myriad other shows in this centre season between Carnival and the launch of the following year’s Carnival in July; Christmas celebrations are now the precursor to Carnival! His Story, we were told, was a musical journey that reflected his connections to the people he worked with, who inspired him; his sister, his late father, his steelpan colleagues, his fans. It was a release of energy, a celebration and a gauge of how an audience can take up music that spans a wide genre profile. It augurs well for the reopening, in full, of a renewed entertainment sector in this island.

© 2022, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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