The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices in Harmony: Bluegrass and Beer - May 21, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
This last of the four projects in Vox Musica’s season was originally titled “Voices in Harmony: Music from Appalachia.” That was intriguing enough for me, since I had come to expect music from Vox Musica that might be called avant garde. But when they changed the subtitle (and probably the plan for the event) to “Bluegrass and Beer,” I was really surprised. But the more I thought about it, I realized that my assumption about Vox Musica was wrong: it is not “avant garde” music that they’re into, though they’re comfortable performing difficult, contemporary music with adventuresome harmonies and rhythms. What they’re “into” is constantly reinventing themselves, exploring new kinds of music — and newly composed music in particular — plus exploring the rich results of collaborating with other vocal and instrumental musicians.
When I arrived at this late Sunday afternoon event at Vox Musica’s home venue, Beatnik Studios, what I found was more of a party or a big company picnic or a backyard gathering of friends — than a concert. Outside there was a food truck specializing in barbecue. Inside you could buy tickets for beer or soft drinks. People were moving around, most with a beer in hand, connecting with friends. It was completely informal — a big, happy crowd. I imagined that a lot of these people had never been to a Vox Musica concert before. It seemed that in pursuing the organization’s slogan, “Music Worth Sharing,” they were finding a wider community to share their music with.
Over on one side of the room I spotted the women of Vox. They were dressed in jeans and black Vox Musica t-shirts with red bandannas accenting their outfits in different ways. Presently things got under way, but I don’t ever recall a more relaxed start to a concert. The guest musicians, The Narrow Gauge String Band, just started playing, and the buzz of conversation in the audience continued. But the singers had positioned themselves around the back of the audience, and they began singing “Banjo Pickin’ Girl.” No question about it: this was Bluegrass music with simple harmonies, multi-verse repeated lyrics, and a beat that ran down your leg and started your toe tapping involuntarily. The audience clapped in time and the women worked their way, singing, to the front of the room. Then in a burst of creativity, they sang a verse a cappella — in Vox style, with ninth chords, I’m guessing — before reverting back to the simple style they had started with.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
This was the beginning of an evening-long celebration of music that you might call Bluegrass or Americana or Old Time Country. There were 4 sets separated by long breaks during which people refilled their drinks or connected with friends. The Narrow Gauge String Band (banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass) began each set and accompanied some of the songs, but most were performed a cappella, sometimes by the whole ensemble, but more often as solos, duets or some other small combination of voices. Good as these singers are, the harmonies were always right on, and it was music that you don’t have to “appreciate” — it takes you over and you’re along for the ride.
There were a number of highlights of the evening, and one involved Vox Musica Artistic Director, Daniel Paulson. Daniel is usually the host of each Vox concert, directing each number. Not so this evening. What subtle directing was required was provided by Susanna Peeples, and Paulson spent most of the time at the back of the room with a little blond girl in his arms, bouncing her to the beat of the music. There were two exceptions, though. For the third song of the first set, “Good in the Kitchen,” Paulson joined the women in a song with wonderfully clever lyrics and a great arrangement. Then he and Mary Frank took seats to perform the Flatt & Scruggs song, “Don’t This Road Look Rough & Rocky.” The music itself was great fun, but what was remarkable was that the singers adopted a country twang in delivering the lyrics. I marveled at their versatility — and the willingness to get into a totally unfamiliar character. I was especially struck by Paulson’s performance: it presented such a contrast in vocal technique to what he's done in his long history as a tenor soloist for major classical works.
In my notes, many times I described the music as “soulful.” But it was more than that for many in the audience. It was music from their childhood or music that had somehow become part of who they are. My friend sitting next to me couldn’t help harmonizing occasionally, and I bet she wasn’t the only one in the audience who was quietly singing along.
And for the women of Vox, it was clear to me that they weren’t just singing the music — they were feeling it. Their enjoyment of what they were doing was palpable. It seemed like a let-your-hair-down event for these accomplished vocalists, who were demonstrating an amazing versatility, even to the point of enunciating lyrics like the recording artists and performers most associated with these songs.
There was a special moment in the third set. It was the MaMuse song ”Hallelujah,” and it was performed by Mary Frank and her daughter Miriam, who couldn’t be older than 6 or 7. It was a true duet, and the little girl matched her mother’s style and had excellent pitch. Predictably, the audience loved it.
In the fourth set there was a great arrangement of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” performed a cappella and with those bluegrass harmonies we’d been hearing all along. Among a night of much-appreciated music, this was surely an audience favorite.
The next piece, “One Voice,” was performed by the full ensemble and was symbolic of the whole concert. It was a cover of the original song by the Wailin’ Jennys, who were obviously the inspiration for a lot of tonight’s music. This song began with a solo, “This is the sound of one voice.” Then a second voice was added, “This is the sound of voices two.” Then a third voice was added, until they got to the fourth verse:
This sweet song led to the finale, “The Parting Glass,” in which each singer held a beer and sang what I believe were the Wailin’ Jennys altered words to this traditional Scottish tune. The final words, however, were preserved: “Good night and joy be with you all.” This would have been a fitting ending for this feel-good concert, but after thanks and a good-bye from Daniel Paulson, the audience was invited to sing the encore with the performers. It was the early 20th-century hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.” It was obviously well-known to a good part of the audience, and with the good feelings still flowing, the crowd lingered with few inclined to “fly away.”