Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Moira Smiley and Voco at the Jenkins House Concert Series (New York)

When you think of house concerts, you probably do not think of New York. After all, we live in tiny shoeboxes where we scarcely have room for two or three friends, let alone two dozen strangers and a set of musicians. But there are a lucky few who have some extra space--entire brownstones, for instance--and therefore have the capacity to host a real downhome house concert. On the Upper West Side, the Jenkins family is one of those lucky few.

I have been lucky enough to attend a number of great concerts at the Jenkins' house over the past several years (e.g. The McKassons, Chris Thile and the Tensions Mountains Boys, Geoff Kaufmann) thanks to my girlfriend Kate's having met Sandy Jenkins at their mutual place of employment and then having joined the effective house band for the concerts, The New Lost Faculty Ramblers.

On Saturday night, I was in a quandary. There was a house concert with a group that I had never heard of--Voco--but where I really wanted to be--and where I had planned on being for a number of days--was down at the Cutting Room, seeing Tom Rush. When I was a kid, I saw Tom Rush a number of times--at the Eli Whitney Folk Festival in New Haven, Connecticut; at the old Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Connecticut--and knew his New Year album thoroughly (and still cannot recommend it enough--go get yourself a copy). I probably have not seen him in 15 years. And so for over two years now, I have been dutifully writing down every Tom Rush concert appearance in my calendar and then--inevitably--not making them. So this time I was going to go. But then the tickets were $30, and I had spent a lot of cash already on shows the night before, and a number of my and Kate's friends were going to be at the house concert, and there was a party afterward (or so I thought), so I grumblingly said, "OK. I'll go to the house concert. I'll see Tom Rush some other time."

Well, I don't know how the Tom Rush show went--allegedly, David Buskin and Robin Batteau were going to show up, which made it all the more likely to be a great show and all the more bitter at first than I had opted not to go--but the Jenkins house concert was excellent.

So Moira Smiley and Voco are an all-female quartet from Los Angeles that sings a mix of American and Eastern European folk songs. The emphasis here is on the vocals--four voices that blend together very nicely and cover a pretty broad range--and after the first song, I have to admit, I said, "OK. That's nice, but a whole concert worth?" But then Jessica Catron started laying down the bass lines on the cello, and Moira (say "Maura") Smiley busted out her banjo and her accordion. By the fourth song of the set, I was in for the long haul--this was good stuff! The rest of the crowd thought so, as well. People were eating it up: going wild with applause after almost every single number.

The repertoire was a terrific mix of gypsy melodies and old American favorites. I was more familiar with the latter and easily got into the shape note tunes and old folk songs that sprang forth. I was particularly charmed by their take on Kate Wolf's "Carolina Pines" (and have to thank the band for getting me to bring up Kate Wolf on my iPod) and their version of the song "Katy Cruel," which I had known as a kid from a Cordelia's Dad CD and cannot recall having heard elsewhere. (Cordelia's Dad has a live version of the song up on their MySpace page.) The band put on two very strong sets, and the crowd was with them the whole way.

Because this was a Jenkins House Concert, there were other acts, as well! The New Lost Faculty Ramblers started off the evening with three songs. And then after intermission Rich Jenkins (who works as a jazz pianist) did two numbers with madcap bassist Ritt Henn who played his masterful "I Hate to Repeat Myself." This was followed by a jazz standard sung by Stephanie Jenkins with violin accompaniment from her brother Reid and her father, and there also was a lovely duet from eldest daughter Cassie Jenkins and Chris Thile.

Following the concert, I asked Moira if she wanted to bring the band on The Moonshine Show the following morning. She asked my name, and when I told her, she said, "Didn't I e-mail you 10 years ago? ... I think your father told me to e-mail you." This seemed entirely plausible, although I certainly am not able to remember the names of people that I sent a single e-mail to 10 years ago! But it was later confirmed with my father. When Moira was promoting her band Vida, my father had gotten their CD, liked it and urged her to contact me about a gig at the Postcrypt. That show never came to fruition, but here we were, 10 years later. At any rate, Moira and the rest of Voco made their way up to WKCR's studios the next morning on about three hours of sleep and shared their music with the Moonshine Show audience. I got a number of calls right off the bat about them, so people enjoyed them over the radio, too. And I certainly enjoyed having them in studio with me (and respected them for getting up, too).


Jess said...

Great post. I'll have to seek them out.... What I'd like to know if how it is that Chris Thile is at this houseconcert venue so often, even as a guest act? Did I miss something?

And can you tell those of who don't know about your radio show/station, what time it's on, etc. Give us some background here!

Matt Winters said...

I'm going to opt to leave the Chris Thile appearances a mystery.

The Moonshine Show, you ask? Check out WKCR-FM in New York, and tune in on Sundays from 10:00 to Noon (Eastern).

Ellen Stanley said...

Linda Thompson has a nice version of "Katy Cruel" on her new album Versatile Heart, which I've been enjoying...

Matt Winters said...

I need to get a copy of that Linda Thompson disc. I should have got one for Kate for Christmas.

Ellen Stanley said...

matt, take a listen to today's show--i played something special for ya. :)