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November 8, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// A new series at the Southern Theater explores the undeniable power of the popular song //

“Puttin’ on the Ritz.” You know it. You love it. And even if the name of this vintage jazz toe-tapper doesn’t ring a bell, the jaunty horns in the first 30 seconds will have you humming along as if you wrote the tune yourself. It’s infectious, classic. Your grandparents know it. Your kids know it. It will never die.

So where does this 1929 Irving Berlin jam get its mojo from? What is it that gives certain popular songs ever lasting life and popularity?

These are the questions explored by a brand new music series launching this month at the Southern Theater. “Southern Songbook” explores the history, culture and art that is the popular song. It’s an attempt to get at the nature of this phenomenon that is such an enormous force in every person’s life: the toe-tapper.

“Apart from the language of science and mathematics, the most universal means of communication is music,” says DeVon Gray, aka dVRG, the multi-instrumentalist from the Heiruspecs. Gray is Songbook’s music director. “Think about how clearly a heart-wrenching tune conveys its sentiment. There’s no mistaking a happy tune or a somber funeral march.”

The series — conceived of by the Honeydogs’ Adam Levy, himself a patron saint of local songwriters, a mentor, muse and man of a million side projects — invites celebrated local musicians and singers to reinterpret standard classics.

So “Putting on the Ritz” might get some hip-hop funk courtesy of local rapper and yoga instructor Omaur Bliss. Or it might get slowed down and folk-a-fied by singer Janey Winterbauer. The first installment of Songbook, entitled “Lush Life,” will keep the focus on the jazz canon.

“I think some people will be more literal,” says Kate Nordstrum, music program director at the Southern. “And some others will really do a reinterpretation in an interesting way.”

Guest musicians include Bliss and Winterbauer, as well as Mayda, Ill Chemistry, Steve Roehm, Toki Wright, Ashleigh Still and Bethany Larson. Gray’s Heiruspecs will act as a house band. And host Adam Levy will play emcee and lead brief discussions of the songs with co-host Jake Rudh, famed DJ behind the post-punk Transmission dance night at Clubhouse Jager.

Classic songs for Lush Life include “My Funny Valentine,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Big Spender” and “Moon River.” But there might be some less recognized tunes, too, says Nordstrum.

“We’ll highlight what makes these songs amazing,” says Gray. “We’ll elevate what makes them human.”

Southern Songbook

‘Lush Life: Interpretations of the American jazz canon’
7 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14
$25, $22
Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S.