Nerissa and Katryna Nields come full circle as sister act
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 25, 2002) – As sisters growing up together, Nerissa and Katryna Nields played together, teased each other and harmonized. When they grew up, they joined together with friends to make music in a band. Now, after a decade as the core of the folk-rock quintet that bore their last name, the two have come full circle, and on Thursday night they performed at Club Helsinki as a sister duo, once again playing, teasing and harmonizing.
The interaction between the two and the close, keening sisterly harmonies that informed so much of the work of the Nields is only heightened in the sister act. While neither of them have conventionally pretty or controlled voices, the organic blend of the two voices together combines to dilute the harshness or occasionally wobbly pitches. They are a biological support system: Nerissa writes the songs, Katryna sings lead on most of them, Nerissa plays guitar, Katryna flaunts her height with dramatic excess. The result is a performance of nearly theatrical impact, far removed from the typical, humdrum solo singer-songwriter syndrome.
And then there are the songs. Nerissa Nields is a sophisticated wordsmith and a talented melodicist. The duo opened the show with “This Town,” one of several anthems from the Nields’s repertoire that decries the commodification of women and art. “We’ll make the rules,” the sisters sang repeatedly in folk-rock harmonies right out of San Francisco, 1967. And indeed, the audience was watching the very display of rule-breaking and rule-making, these unlikely role models – these anti-Britneys – demonstrating an alternative path to that of the mainstream.
The duo previewed several new songs slated for the forthcoming duo album, Love and China, to be released by Zoe Records on March 5. The title track, one of the few numbers on which Nerissa sang lead, told the back-story of a relationship in a style that reminded one of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” with the love and the china artfully progressing from cherished objects to broken pieces that are eventually scattered and lost. A few other of the new tunes suggested the sisters are headed towards Everly Brothers-style country-pop territory.
The sisters took a dual approach in handling songs from their band’s repertoire. Some were delivered full-blast, with Nerissa playing rock chords on her acoustic guitar and the vocalists belting out the lyrics to Nields favorites like “Tomorrowland” and “Be Nice to Me.”
More successful were the numbers that were recast into folksier arrangements. Nerissa fingerpicked her way through a kinder, gentler version of “Easy People,” and “Snowman” lost none of its visceral impact in a toned-down version. Even a number like “Jeremy Newborn Street” -- in its original guise a complex, Kinks-like bit of British Invasion pop -- worked fine in an unplugged version that simply emphasized the jaunty melody and Nerissa’s picturesque lyrics.
The sisters peppered the performance with stories and clever interplay that updated and gender-switched the Smothers Brothers. This wasn’t just shtick, however. The sisters were funny and genuine, and by the end of the show listeners had a sense of what it must have been like to eavesdrop on Nerissa and Katryna Nields when the two were just youngsters playing, teasing and harmonizing.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Jan. 26, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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