Old-time karaoke
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., February 16, 2003) – The local trio Housatonic Philharmonic attempted to turn back the clock on Saturday night at La Choza – typically the scene of jam-rock and funk bands -- with a concert of old-time, rural American folk music, bringing some back-porch atmosphere to the concrete-floored, subterranean nightclub.

It was a worthy attempt that only partially succeeded, if at all. What the group had going for it in its favor was a devotion to old-time fiddle and dance tunes – waltzes, jigs and reels – as well as display pieces meant for listening and perhaps to move one’s emotions rather than one’s feet.

A French-Canadian reel was a light and lively dance number, on which Tim Gray’s hammered dulcimer was the very incarnation of the dancers. Banjoist Andy Gordon provided rhythmic and chordal accompaniment and took a bouncy solo that echoed Gray’s dulcimer melody, and Gray doubled on pennywhistle.

But fiddler Paul Rice had to battle several problems to get across his feelings on traditional Irish numbers, fast fiddle dances, and on originals like “Lauren’s Lullaby,” a mid-tempo piece constructed with the beauty of mathematical proportions, almost classical in shape.

It wasn’t always easy to hear Rice’s plaintive lines, in part due to the ambient sound of loud conversations among a seemingly inattentive audience, but also due to some questionable choices on the part of the trio.

Rice was ably accompanied by Gordon, although his rhythmic accompaniment often threatened to dissolve into the background, too. Both were overwhelmed, however, by the loudness of the dulcimer and, particular, by the programmed, electronic keyboard system run by Gray.

The sound of Gray’s “piano” was not only too loud, but also aesthetically offensive. By forcing the musicians to play to its pre-recorded rhythm and meter, it almost gave the program the feel of karaoke, which must have been the furthest intention on the part of the musicians whose stated goal, according to their website and CD liner notes, is to “evoke an era when live music was the only music.” The pre-programmed piano squared off any round edges the music might have had by forcing the musicians to play to the computerized beat. There could be no swing or lift, no push or pull – no human pulse – as long as the tempo was determined strictly by a machine.

Nor did the musicians help matters by making virtually no attempt to connect with the audience, such as it was. They took way too much time between songs, during which nothing happened other than their conferring on stage. This isn’t to say that the musicians should have had a slick or polished stage show, but even a back-porch picking session would probably include more communication amongst the musicians and those just sitting around eavesdropping.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 18, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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