Big or little? What’s the best venue in which to hear music? While not much can compare to the sensory feast and technical glitz of a big arena show, and a Woodstock-like festival can be like stepping into a parallel universe, when it comes down to hearing the music rather than having an “experience,” small is beautiful. I was reminded of this recently by three very intimate concerts in an unlikely venue in an even more unlikely place.
West Whately, Massachusetts could be the poster child for the old New England joke punch line “You can’t get there from here.” There is no there there. If there’s a village “center” I’ve never found it; West Whately is more of a geographic designation for scattered farms and homes that aren’t close enough to other towns to be counted as part of them. But it does sport a 19th-century wooden church, the West Whatley Chapel. It sits at the end of a pond formed by an earthen dam, woods on one side and a tidy farm on the other. It’s also the site of Watermelon Wednesdays, a June through September concert series organized by a local, Paul Newlin, whose über-friendly black lab is a regular attendee. About a hundred folks gather weekly to sit on folding chairs and hear amazing musicians, many of whom record at nearby Signature Sounds. Think that life has gotten too complicated? Take in one of these concerts and step back in time. Lots of times the musicians don’t even plug in, but even when they do, it’s to the single thin amp that sits on the “stage,” a slightly raised platform where the pulpit once stood. There are no monitors, and the “stage lights” consist of clip-on lamps rigged together with extension cords. The chapel is a literal bats-in-the-belfry place. At intermission the audience goes outside to eat watermelon—free with your $15 ticket--and watch the bats dart out to the pond to feed. (Alas! White fungus disease has decimated their numbers as of late.)
So what kind of music can you hear? Grammy Award winner Laurie Lewis showed up in July with a passel of old-time songs and some fiddle prowess that shows why she’s also won some International Bluegrass Music Association prizes. The California-based Lewis was in her element in a place that could be transported to the Appalachians without culture shock. Her spare show reminded that music is supposed to be about voice and a few instruments—anything more and it’s spectacle.
August was ushered out by some locals who have made waves and have joined forces: Four Toads in a Basket. An odd name I grant you. It came from a (very) failed pick-up line used on Tracy Grammer, one of the “Toads” and a name just about everyone knows from her past partnership with the late, great Dave Carter, and her recent collaborations with the talented Jim Henry, another Toad. Their fellow wart-givers are the golden-voiced Ben Demerath, and producer/musician Dave Chalfant, perhaps best known for his bass guitar work with The Nields. Four Toads was playing just their second show, but they’re already playing as if they’re really enchanted princes and princesses. Or maybe angels in tight four-part harmony. Their work-in-progress repertoire is almost impossible to describe. Suffice it to say that it ranges from traditional songs to The Rolling Stones and they don’t miss many stops in between. Think Michael Jackson is dead? Listen to Demerath cover him before you draw that conclusion!
Several weeks later I went to hear Aoife O’Donovan, who is also the lead singer for Crooked Still and Sometimes Why, and a candidate for the coveted Tina Fey Cute Glasses Award. Her show was the opposite of the Four Toads in that just one voice, O’Donovan’s, was on display in all its sweet, willowy tones reminiscent of a less-nasal Alison Krauss. She appeared with three band members, including Ryan Scott, who wielded a mighty steel body resonator guitar, but true to the West Whately formula the two guitars/bass/drum kit ensemble made a powerful but controlled-volume racket. It was a lovely evening of ambient songs such as “The Burning,” a bit of grit (“Oh Mama”), and one of the best covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” I’ve ever heard.
The season’s almost over, but if you live anywhere nearby you’ll want to check out the Sweetback Sisters on September 28. The rest of you should plan a summer 2012 vacation to West Whately. Just don’t look for brochures at the travel agency.