WAMC Linda Norris Auditorium
February 10, 2006
by J Hunter
If you didn't know better, you would have looked at the bespectacled guy in faded black shirt-and-jeans and thought someone from the crowd had wandered onstage. Only the acoustic guitar he carried (His first guitar, he confided to us later) separated Kenny Rankin from the full house at WAMC Linda Norris Auditorium. Like me, these people were mesmerized by Rankin in high school and have carried him with them ever since, and he appreciates them like you would a group of old friends.
(Well, that's neat, J, you say. But what's a pop singer from the 60s and 70s doing being reviewed on a site like this?)
Because it makes sense, if you know the man's work. Yes, he comes out of the same singer/songwriter class that includes Paul Simon and James Taylor, but Rankin has always attacked songs (both his and other people's) with a multi-octave, scat-driven vocal style that makes you think of Kurt Elling, not Kenny Loggins. He never achieved the platinum success of his contemporaries, but he's always had a rabid following, as was demonstrated by the array of late-term baby boomers that greeted him with shouts and whistles and sent him off with a standing ovation.
Nice to be here, he said as he settled himself in the chair at center stage. Nice to be indoors, he added before launching into the Beatles' Blackbird. Rankin's recordings are with full band, but a guitar (or a piano) and a microphone is all he needs in concert, using the instrument to lay down the beat for his wide-ranging vocalise. While the years may have taken a few of Rankin's high notes (He was also fighting, as he put it, the sniffles), he easily compensated by diving into his lower range, changing his scat-instrument from alto sax to baritone.
Rankin alternated between guitar and piano throughout the set, which was almost an even split between his own material and covers of artists he loves. He made Ben E. King's Spanish Harlem (A song from my hometown.) into a slow, slinky love song. He prefaced The Way You Look Tonight with a wistful Mr. Tambourine Man, and used When Sunny Gets Blue to pay tribute to his late friend and collaborator Jack Siegal. Round Midnight was floated on a cushion of optimism, giving it an uptempo vibe that flipped the song's meaning. Then he used a piece of John Sebastian's She's A Lady as an intro for one of his own works, the flamenco-laced In The Name Of Love. (My request, by the way. Thanks, Kenny, if you're reading this.)
There were stories upon stories - about the songs, about his life, and about his three children
or his three ex-children, to be precise. I don't have kids anymore, he told us. I have people. And by show's end, we knew how much he loved them. He prefaced Peaceful by telling us how he used the song as a lullaby, and related struggles with his daughter to I'm Just Your Dad. The latter song worked for this crowd that were teenagers when Rankin started out, but now have children (and grandchildren) of their own.
Rankin's stage patter was intimate and off-the-cuff, and kept us laughing all night. As a police car went by with siren blaring, Rankin cracked, I don't have a tenor player in this band! He stopped a song in mid-intro to ask, Am I out of tune? I mean, you guys look friendly, but you're not deaf! He ran the strings of his guitar over the microphone, then simply smiled and said Hendrix. Rankin immediately followed that joke with a sterling rendition of Up From The Skies, reminding us that the legendary guitar wizard could write a lyric or two.
In the end, it was Rankin on his feet, a cappella, singing Because Of You directly to (and for) the crowd. Rankin said his time with his first guitar is the longest relationship I've ever had. A close second is the one he has with his fans. This night showed why that relationship is not going away any time soon: It's beautiful, it's personal, and it's downright fun.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.