(11/23/01) Singer-songwriters on the verge unite in voice
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 20, 2001) – The first thing Erin McKeown wants you to know about the singer-songwriters collectively known as Voices on the Verge is that they’re not a group or a band.

Sure, they have a brand new album out under the Voices on the Verge name. And yes, they’ve been touring off and on under that name for the last few years – their next stop is at Club Helsinki on Wednesday night, November 28, at 9. But McKeown insists that Voices on the Verge is something short of a unit but more than just four individuals sharing a stage.

“The central trouble for us is that there isn’t a model,” said McKeown, who along with fellow female singer-songwriters Jess Klein, Rose Polenzani and Beth Amsel constitutes Voices on the Verge.

“We’re not a band, although we try to take the best of what it is to be in a band,” said McKeown in a recent phone interview. “And we’re also not four individual songwriters. We don’t always all play instruments at the same time. And any of these supergroups of singer-songwriters -- like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young -- none of them had the same dynamics we do. We get compared to the Four Bitchin’ Babes all the time, which is about the furthest thing from what we do.”

The new Voices on the Verge CD, Live in Philadelphia (Ryko/Slow River), offers some clues as to what Voices on the Verge is all about. Foremost, it’s about four individual musicians performing together live before in audience. The singers take turns playing songs from their individual repertoires, and back each other up variously with vocal harmonies and instrumental accompaniment.

But don’t expect any studio album by the group, nor any original songs credited to the foursome. “Writing songs together has been discussed, but I think all of us are immature enough writers at this point to not know how to handle writing together,” cracks McKeown.

Voices on the Verge originated in a single booking three years ago, when the four performers were slated to perform individual half-hour sets one night at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton. They decided that instead of following each other in solo sets, they would all sit together and perform round-robin style.

Similar bookings followed, and as they learned each other’s songs, they began lending vocal harmonies and instrumental accompaniment to each other.

They surprised each other sometimes, too. While all four are primarily guitarists, they can be heard on “Live in Philadelphia” stretching out instrumentally. Jess Klein takes her clarinet out of its case to add the perfect, jazzy touch to McKeown’s swing tune, “Didn’t They?” McKeown returns the favor by playing piano behind Klein on her song, “House You’re Living In.” Sometimes one or two of them will play hand percussion.

But it’s the opportunity to sing together that McKeown says most distinguishes the music of Voices on the Verge from the four musicians’ solo work.

“There’s something joyful and beautiful about four people singing together,” said McKeown, who like Jess Klein, has performed several, well-received solo shows at Club Helsinki. “That seems to be what really reached people, what carries it to the next level. It’s something that none of us has going on in our solo projects -- none of us has other singers, it’s always just our own voices.”

McKeown said working with Voices on the Verge has been a learning experience in terms of patience and learning to sing with others. “I was never in a choir. The Voices project has taught me how to come up with a harmony part and how to be consistent about it.

“And I’ve learned patience. And it’s been a good lesson. It’s hard for me. I take great pride in my music and I take great pride in the fact that it’s my own decision and my own vision. When you sign on to Voices on the Verge you sign on to leaving behind what you know. You’re only one of four people, and I’ve had to learn patience to let it be what it is and to be part of a whole.”

Also coming to Club Helsinki is hip-hop collective Real Live Show, on Friday, November 23, and soul-jazz group Topaz, on Saturday, Nov. 24. The brass-heavy group Topaz boasts a brand-new album, The Zone (Velour), that suggests a new focus for the group – more of an upbeat, dance-oriented sound, with groovy interplay between tenor saxophonist/leader Topaz, who formerly fronted the Future Freedom Ensemble, and trombonist Squantch. The arrangements, colored by Ethan White’s distinctive Wurlitzer keyboards, combine the funk of Isaac Hayes, the brawn of Tower of Power, and the jazzy, narrative wit of Steely Dan.

Elsewhere in the Berkshires, bassist John Menegon brings his jazz trio to Castle Street Café in Great Barrington on Friday night, with Ram Miles and Billy Voiers teaming up as Milestones at Castle Street on Saturday night.

The Reverend Tor Band will be laying down the groovy jams at LaCocina in Pittsfield on Friday night, while the Jeff Gonzales Band plays its mix of blues, country and rock at the Lion’s Den in Stockbridge.

On Saturday night, singer-songwriter Bernice Lewis headlines at the new Railway Café folk series in North Adams, while Hambone’s Whole Wheat Revue entertains at the Lion’s Den.

Further afield, singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky will perform songs from her excellent new album, “Every Single Day,” at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls, on Saturday, while Bob Dylan will perform songs from his excellent new album, “Love and Theft,” at the Fleet Center in Boston.

Based on the initial response to its new singer-songwriter series, “Originals in Song,” the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield has gone ahead and booked a spring season, which will include shows by Lucy Kaplansky (March 9), Susan Werner (March 30), and John Gorka (May 9). This in addition to the already-scheduled show by Cheryl Wheeler on January 11. The museum will also present former Del Fuegos bandleader Dan Zanes with his new children’s rock band, the Rocket Ship Review, on April 13.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Nov. 23, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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