Gabriel Kahane: The Ambassador
UNC Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Wednesday, October 22, 2014

As the crowd at UNC’s Memorial Hall settled into its seats on Wednesday night, a soft recording of crickets chirping greeted them. They were gathered to see the world premiere of The Ambassador, a staged performance of composer and songwriter Gabriel Kahane’s new album of the same title, which will visit the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December before hitting UCLA in February. The album, rooted loosely in rock and pop and polished by Kahane’s classical training, takes listeners on a journey through the city of Los Angeles via the perspectives of more than a dozen characters.

There was no official announcement or formal indication that the show was beginning. Instead, a barefoot Kahane walked onstage while the house lights were still up and moved a small paper doll of himself onto a stack of film canisters that looked like a building. The lights then lowered, and our journey began.

The beginning portion of the performance burned slowly and felt like that moment at the top of a roller coaster just before the massive plunge. There were materials to make this dive into Los Angeles a bit easier—the program included an annotated map of the addresses in The Ambassador—but the audio, visuals and bare information were a lot to take in for someone whose understanding mostly (and unfortunately) hinges upon popular culture.

Throughout the show, Kahane moved around the set, standing on an elevated platform as he sang “I am alone on this hill, these vistas are certain,” during “Black Garden (2673 Dundee Pl.).” Kahane said the set pieces were designed to help give the audience extra information and context for the songs, and he and his crew managed to pull this delivery off without any major kinks. It was interesting that there was no fabric backdrop at the back of the stage. Instead, the rarely seen bare back wall was exposed, lending extra authenticity to the urban setting crafted from books and other ephemera.

The Ambassador’s most striking section was the 10-minute “Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.),” which tells the story of the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins from Harlins’ perspective. The piece felt particularly poignant in the wake of rising tension stemming from the recent killings of other unarmed African-American young people such as Michael Brown, John Crawford and Lennon Lacy. It was here that the history lesson component of The Ambassador rang loudest; sure, the trivia and little facts were fun, but this song (and subsequent internet research at home) hit much harder.

But the songs of The Ambassador aren’t all so weighty: “Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.)” ponders the question of why movie villains all live in homes built by modernist masters. The song itself is a lighthearted treat, but live, a multimedia addition couched the tune in some extra fun. One of Kahane’s players moved a set piece, a house on a hill that was central to the preceding song, to the top of Kahane’s piano in front of a camera. As the song progressed, he rotated the miniature house, which revealed itself to be full of the Die Hard and Pulp Fiction characters mentioned in the song, among other guest stars such as The Big Lebowski’s The Dude.

“Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd)” was surprisingly endearing, somehow evoking nostalgia for a place that ceased its hotel duties three years before I even existed. With just an acoustic guitar, this song is simpler than everything else on the record—but Kahane’s heartfelt eulogy, told from the perspective of a lifelong employee of the institution, needed no extra flourishes.

The Ambassador came to a gentle, almost dreamlike close as the stage lights dimmed while LED-lit books transformed the stacks into something more closely resembling a nighttime skyline. Nearly 90 minutes passed in a span that felt more like half an hour. With The Ambassador, Kahane could have had his band play through the songs like a regular rock show and it still would have been an intriguing experiment. But the careful onstage execution made a world of difference, transforming a concept album into something much more significant and valuable.