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Pretty Young Thing

Guitarist Desiree Bassett returns to Hartford with Cirque du Soleil’s salute to Michael Jackson Pretty Young Thing

One morning last March, 19-year-old guitar phenom and Ashford, Conn. resident Desiree’ Bassett was relaxing at home, tucked away in the state’s Quiet Corner, listening to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” The phone rang, and Daniel Bassett, Desiree’s father and manager, answered: It was Greg Phillinganes, a keyboardist who’s played with Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin and dozens of other pop stars. Now the musical director for Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour, Phillinganes had seen Bassett’s YouTube performance videos and was calling to ask her to join his touring band.

Bassett’s father didn’t know who he was, Desiree said, by phone from a tour stop in Indianapolis, Ind. Her dad told Phillinganes to send him an e-mail with the information. Moments later, the message arrived, and the next three years of Bassett’s life were set: she’d tour the world, visit nearly every continent, and perform with a handpicked group of professional musicians, many of whom were longtime associates of the now-deceased King of Pop.

“I went over to look at the computer, and I was in total awe,” Bassett said. “I was just so excited and so happy. It was just a coincidence that I was listening to Michael’s music. I had no idea.”

Bassett, who grew up in a fairly rock-centric household, was encouraged by her parents at age 3 to start singing and to play a half-size guitar; two years later, she was better than her dad. Before she was a teenager, Bassett was placing high in regional competitions and talent shows, attracting the attention of industry types and legendary guitarists who were happy to share their knowledge with the young musician.

“I’ve been playing for a very long time, but I didn’t really start playing out publicly until I was 12 years old,” Bassett said. “I did a lot of open mics... I have a really big fan base in Connecticut.” At 12, Bassett performed at Ozzfest in Hartford in 2005, where she met rocker Rob Zombie. She’s jammed with Sammy Hagar, Ted Nugent, members of Living Colour, the Marshall Tucker Band and the Allman Brothers Band. Two of her YouTube clips have each been viewed over a million times. She released her first CD, Power and Force, in 2008, when she was only 16, and she now runs her own business and independent record label with her father.

Still, it’s hard to imagine any of that preparing the guitarist for what lay ahead. Apart from the realities of a three-year stint on the road, working with the pop icon’s music was a departure for  Bassett. Her first exposure to Jackson’s music came in first grade, when she saw the “Thriller” music video. “I’m more on the rock and blues side of things,” she said. “It’s completely a first for me, but I’m having a lot of fun,” she said. “Michael’s music has a lot of rock in it as well.” The Cirque du Soleil show is driven by Jackson’s voice. They do over 30 songs, with additional   transitional snippets, following along to a click-track in their in-ear monitors, so that what they play is synced up with Jackson’s pre-recorded vocal tracks. Like the much-ballyhooed Beatles Love project a few years back, producers were given access to Jackson’s original masters, and Phillinganes, who played with Jackson for more than 20 years, worked by extracting Michael’s voice from the recordings. Apart from Jackson’s voice, the music is performed live every night by a 12-piece band, anchored by drummer Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett, Jackson’s drummer since the Bad tour 30 years ago. There’s slightly less of an emphasis on deft in-air maneuvers than in other Cirque shows, but expect a spectacle. “This one is quite unique,” said tour publicist Maxime Charbonneau. “It’s a big pop-rock concert, very different from previous shows that were more acrobatic. It’s a hybrid of a Cirque du Soleil show and a rock concert.”

In terms of her movement and playing onstage Bassett doesn’t lay back; she cuts loose, full-throttle, for most of the show. It’s a shredder’s dream, filling the shoes of some pretty great  guitarists: Eddie Van Halen (who performed the solo on Jackson’s “Beat It”), Steve Stevens (“Dirty Diana”), longtime Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten, Slash, Carlos Santana, on and on. And Bassett doesn’t simply emulate what’s been done on the recordings. “I’ve never played with Michael or performed his music before,” Bassett said. “But to play with these musicians, I’ve learned so much. I really feel a lot of emotions too.”

Bassett and Charbonneau estimate they’ve already performed about 80 shows, and by the time they reach Hartford’s XL Center on May 2 that number will be over 100. Bassett expects her hometown crowd to be full of family members and friends. “My grandmother and sister came out for opening night in Montreal in October,” she said. “My grandmother was in tears. She was so proud. My mom and
one of her friends came out to a show in Las Vegas. All my family is going to be at the Hartford show. I’m really excited.”

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