I have a confession to make: I'm not a big U2 fan.
I mean, I like a lot of their songs, and they've been a constant in my life, but the only album I bought was Achtung Baby (and I think I bought at least two copies after one disappeared).
After playing and listening to their songs intensely for a few weeks, I've had time to think about why the band hadn't really appealed to me -- and why I've come to change my mind.
First, I'm generally not a huge fan of over-processed music. I like playing music, and I like hearing how things are played. The Edge's reliance on delays and other effects pedals (and the subsequent martial beat required of Larry Mullen to keep steady with the electronics) impressed me but never won me over because it was all hidden in a metaphoric black box.
After spending some time with our lead guitarist Chip and Gary Backstrom (formerly Jiggle the Handle, now of the Gary Backstrom Band and the Family Folk Chorale), they helped decipher some of the techniques and I've come to appreciate the simplicity of the playing under the barrage of notes. Lots of new ways to add a 4th to a chord or arpeggio! The chording that opens "Pride" is really clever.
And to be honest, even though I still don't totally understand it, I've always loved that crazy guitar sound that starts "Mysterious Ways," so maybe I was kidding myself about over-processed sounds.
Second, early on I dismissed Bono's lyrics as stridently political. And as much as I appreciated the power of politics, it wasn't something I wanted to sing about. Crowds chanting anthems always kind of freak me out, even when they are chanting something I believe in. That's why I love Achtung Baby -- I can get behind songs of love pretty easily.
I recently found this excellent fan site, atU2, that has a list of all their songs (including minor lyric alterations in recorded live shows) and a published quote from the band (mostly Bono) about what they were writing about. And it turns out Bono and I share the same opinion about some of these lyrics -- heavily emotional and hung on subjects somewhat haphazardly:
"'Pride' started out as an ecstatic rant. We looked for a subject big enough to demand this level of emotion that was coming out. ... There was a lot of emotion there, but to be honest with you, as a lyric it's daft. No, not daft. It's just not deft. It's a missed opportunity. I even get the time of Dr. King's assassination wrong. I said, 'Early morning-April four.' It was early evening." - Bono, Rolling Stone 2005
That site also pointed out to me that "One," which was I always thought was a break-up song, was written about a different kind of relationship: a gay man coming out to his father. That really turns my head around and I've come to appreciate the lyrics even more.
Third, U2 has at times seemed like Bono's band. That's sort of ridiculous since The Edge pretty much defines the sound, but Bono's strong personality and seeming ubiquity can make it seem like a one man show.
This is where Chris Eastburn changed my mind. As usual, Chris did a wonderful job choosing and arranging the songs we are singing, and in doing so he's transformed how I think about the songs. I truly believe that these are some of the best vocal arrangements our group has sung. It may be related to the open, arpeggiated musical backgrounds that they are laid over. It certainly has to do with the songs that hit that pop sweet spot: the balance between simplicity and repetition versus complexity and a sense of the new. Maybe it's because the chorus knows and loves these songs. In any case, hearing fifty voices harmonizing on "40" or "In God's Country" can sound like a church choir.
So, three reasons that kept me from embracing the band are now dismissed. Somehow these very particular songs from particular decades and from a specific European island have become universal sing alongs to me. They really are fun to sing along to and I hope lots of people come out to sing with us on May 6, 2018. Should be a good one.
We hope you enjoyed our Bob Marley show as much as we did. I know around my house the random whistling you hear is often the melody to One Love.
Well, for our next show, we're changing the melody but maybe not the lyrics.
As a special "thank you" to the group, Terry Chen and Joseph Rothchild treated the Newton Family Singers to an afternoon of square dancing!
Beth Parkes from dancecallers.com got us all moving around in circles and squares, dosey-doe-ing and generally having a great time. The various American and English folk dances took a minute to get used to, but Beth was terrific at reading the crowd and giving us each a new step to learn once we mastered the last. Plus, her calls were like ad lib singing over the music.
The event was crowned by the Virginia Reel -- a real crowd-pleaser.
Then Beth flipped her sound system over to a playlist of popular dance songs from the 70s to today -- including a few that we've sung in concert! Much boogeying was had by all.
Thank you, Joseph and Terry!
We were on TV!
Local filmmaker and singer-songwriter, Deb Todd Wheeler, filmed our Happiness Is the Truth show from December 2016 and made a concert/documentary that aired on NewTV, the public cable access channel of our hometown of Newton, MA.
It's a 30 minute film and you can see it here.
Deb did a fantastic job getting great sound and images, and then recombining them in a way that is at turns funny, entertaining, and inspiring. Worth a look.
From the Waban Improvement Society newsletter:
On April 9, 2017, two young but established Waban institutions joined up at the Greater Boston JCC to create an afternoon of music and fun and to raise some money for a good cause. Newton Family Singers’ spring concert, One Voice, was a benefit in collaboration with Team Believe for Best Buddies, an organization that helps our neighbors and family members with developmental and intellectual disabilities find employment and build lasting friendships. Through sponsorships, tickets, raffles and concessions, they raised over $9,000!
Chris Eastburn, musical director of Newton Family Singers, chose a great setlist for the show -- although he claims little credit. “People suggested lots of great songs with themes of friendship, community and self-esteem and it was just a matter of choosing some that would sound good in four-part harmony.”
The show opened with “One Day,” a song co-written by Matisyahu, the Jewish-American reggae singer, which has a sentiment like John Lennon’s “Imagine”: looking forward to a world in peace. There were plenty of familiar songs that people sang along to, by the likes of Carole King, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Katy Perry, U2 and the Four Tops.
Scott Leung surprised the audience -- and even some of his partners on stage -- when he extemporized at the end of “You’ve Got a Friend,” singing “Here we are at the JCC / where it feels so good to have a Best Buddy” to laughter and applause.
Another highlight was Nejma Reza (11) leading the group in Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder.” That song, with its lyrics celebrating the blessings of an unnamed child whose condition baffles doctors, inspired RJ Palaccio’s terrific novel Wonder (available at the Waban Library Center)! Our rendition also featured a solo by Ben Chelminsky, a young man with Autism who has sung with Newton Family Singers since 2012. “People see me/ I’m a challenge to your balance / I’m over your heads how I confound you and astound you,” he sang. Ben’s mother Daphne Romanoff says that singing in harmony with Newton Family Singers is one of Ben’s favorite activities each week.
Appropriately for Team Believe, the concert ended with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” featuring a string quartet arrangement by Eastburn. That finale featured some special guests -- members of Team Believe on stage singing along, including long-time Waban residents Josh, Alex, Marianne and Steve Yood, Matthew, Christopher and Theresa Fitzpatrick and Ava Harder.
When the concert ended, the band played an instrumental to walk people off the stage… but no one wanted to leave! The combination of good music, good will and a good cause was too potent to let go. “A few years ago we had a fundraiser for the Asperger/Autism Network,” said Monique Byrne. “The concerts where we’re raising money for a charity that is particularly meaningful to us really add something special to the atmosphere.”
If you’d like to hear a selection of songs from that concert, make sure to come out to hear the Newton Family Singers on Waban Village Day!
After this Spring's concert, we will probably have a social gathering and people will say nice things about lots of people, including me as the director of the band. I will do my best to smile graciously and deflect, but really, if I had the time and the presence of mind, I would say something nice about the band. I would probably say something like this:
I've told people this before, but my family joining Newton Family Singers was motivated by a conversation I had with a friend. "How do I get better at playing guitar?" I asked him. His answer: Play with other people.
I suspect a lot of people are bedroom guitarists, like I was. That is, happy to sit at home strumming away to myself. But, emboldened by my friend's advice, I struck up a conversation at the local elementary school with a guy who played bass. We got together to play a couple of times, and I instantly understood what my friend meant. To play with other people requires you to focus, to pay more attention to tempo and pitch and just be more in the moment.
A month or so later when I heard there was a musical group forming at the Waban Library, I convinced my wife to join and bring the kids.
I've played with a lot of people in the NFS band since then, and I've gotten a lot better on my instrument. (Still room for improvement!)
Another way to say that is that I've learned a lot with everyone who's been in the band, especially Andy Rogovin (a natural and patient teacher) and Neil Johnson (now playing around Boston in his band Beyond the Blur). And I want to salute all the musicians who come in for a song or two each concert, like Joseph Rothschild among others. And of course, Quinn Eastburn is his own force of nature.
However, I wanted to take this moment to just heap some praise on the current, core NFS band, which has remained essentially the same since 2015.
Bernie Bernstein is the bassist I met at the elementary school years ago. Bass players are often quiet personalities who anchor a band without being flashy or showing off. Bernie is a quintessential bass player -- he is always playing exactly what the music needs. I suspect a lot of people don't actively listen to what Bernie is playing but can nonetheless sense when he's there, holding us all together. He's got a terrific ear for melody and rhythm and it's amazing how quickly he can learn a part for a small group, five minutes after being asked to join them.
Mike Klein is a super solid drummer. Let's be frank, keeping time for our group can be ... tough. In a rock band, they set the tempo and go from beginning to end. With NFS, we're conducted with a lot of skill and musicality by Chris Eastburn so the tempos may shift or suspend here and there to accommodate singers and convey emotional intentions. Mike is essentially keeping a shifting tempo -- which is an oxymoron. On top of that, he plays with a lot of color and emotion. I don't tend to think of drumming as emotional, but I find myself moved by subtle dynamic changes or fills that Mike adds to our songs.
Our lead guitarist Chip Highfield is the hardest working member of NFS. Seriously. I know you all practice at home (right?) and maybe you put in a few extra hours in a week singing to the cd or picking notes out at a piano. Chip and I get together regularly (always at his insistence) throughout a session, with Bernie and Mike if they have time. And while it's impressive when Chris suddenly asks Chip to play 16 bars extemporaneously, it's equally amazing that Chip learns guitar solos from the bands we're covering. He learns John Fogerty's part on "Proud Mary," he can play all the Jen Turner fills on "Wonder." Think about how much work goes into learning a vocal part in one song -- a part that someone has written out for you. Now imagine learning the part yourself and essentially being a soloist on every song! That's not just instinct; that's hours and hours of listening, and then even more hours of playing along. I get emails from Chip about what might seem like minutiae -- he's just been listening to a live version of some song and the chord change they use is a bit different from what we've been playing: should we try it? Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't, but I'm always just astounded at the amount of research that goes into everything Chip plays. And of course, once he starts going, he plays fluidly; Chip never sounds like he's playing an etude, he's always playing an aria. .
I feel very lucky to be standing among these players and hearing Mike add a happy reggae fill to a song, or hear Bernie jump up a couple octaves to play a wind instrument part, or Chip play a weird little note that I once noticed on the recording.
There are a few people in NFS that I know can sing their own part while listening to everything the band is doing. (In contrast, I have no idea what people are singing when I'm just trying to play along to some songs.) I know who they are because they look over and smile and make eye contact when someone plays something new and pleasing. Chris Eastburn occasionally makes comments like, "Chip, you added a 6th on the second to last measure, that was kind of cool."
More likely, you're one of the majority of people who isn't sure exactly what the band members are doing, just that they sound pretty great.
I agree, whole-heartedly.
From soprano, Daphne Romanoff:
Our upcoming concert, One Voice, is a collection of fun, uplifting songs about challenge, strength, diversity, and inclusion. This concert is also a fundraiser for Best Buddies, a terrific program for people with disabilities.
We have first hand knowledge about Best Buddies since our son, Ben, an NFS member with autism, participates in Boston College’s Best Buddies program, where BC students do fun social activities with disabled young adults, many of whom work at BC like Ben.
Ben, who sings bass in the group, also just tried out for a solo for this concert, trying really hard to nail those pitches with the lyrics:
"People see me. I’m a challenge to your balance. I’m over your heads how I confound you and astound you.”
I’m not sure if he’ll get the solo, but the process of trying out and practicing is certainly a learning opportunity!
Here’s a link to the essay that I wrote, together with Jack Cheng of NFS, a few years ago. http://www.newtonfamilysingers.org/jacks-blog/category/essays
Any contribution to Best Buddies is valued and, of course, just as important: come to our concert to sing, clap, and smile!
See you there!
Daphne and Ben
Recently, on Facebook, a member of our group mentioned that the song "Wonder" by Natalie Merchant makes her cry every time she hears it.
It really is a beautiful song with a powerful lyric that provides an epigraph and title for RJ Palacio's masterful novel Wonder. (If you haven't read Wonder, you owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it.)
But the truth is, for years, I never really listened to the words of "Wonder" because I would always get distracted by the elegant, tasty electric guitar licks.
So that had me wondering, who was that guitarist!?
Her name is Jennifer Turner.
Female lead guitarists aren't all that common in rock/pop music. There's Bonnie Raitt in the blues/slide tradition, but aside from some of Prince' proteges or St Vincent, there aren't that many women who shred. (I'm sure I'm missing plenty of guitarists here -- please let me know in the comments.)
That video is supposedly the second time Natalie Merchant's solo band played out, a three song set on the National Mall on Earth Day 1995. They start with "Carnival," "Wonder" starts at 7:08, and then they cover "Baby I Love You." Turner's guitar is pretty prominent in each of the songs; she's also featured quite a bit in the video footage.
A contemporary article in the Hartford Courant quotes Merchant about finding Turner as well as female sound techs in her post-10,000 Maniacs band.
Turner toured with Merchant but by the time Merchant recorded her sophomore album, "Ophelia," Turner was no longer with the band.
It's not clear why they parted ways, although the internet is full of bloggers who assert that Turner was drawing a lot of attention, to the resentment of Merchant. That works in a "jealous women" narrative, but it's quite possible that the exposure gave Turner new career opportunities to pursue.
Although when you start at the guitar solo for Carnival in this video, it looks like a Jennifer Turner showcase with Natalie Merchant trying to shimmy her way into some attention, like an overtired kid in pajamas trying to impress her parents' friends.
In 1998, the band Furslide released an album, featuring Turner as lead singer and guitarist, fronting a trio. Here's "Over My Head":
That song ended up on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television soundtrack, although some Buffy fan boards claim the song was never on the show itself..
The best summary of Turner's playing since then comes from the Felpin's Pond blog. It includes this paragraph:
"Around 2009 or 2010 she joined Here We Go Magic and was with them for their second and third albums. This was her blond period. With this group she played bass and keyboards. She produced their 2010 album, Pigeons (released June 2010) and was also with for them for their album, Different Ship in 2012. She left that band abruptly in a airport in a misunderstanding over sausages."
The blog also notes that Turner appears with Merchant in a documentary about the "Tigerlily" album.
We can be kind of secretive about our setlists, I know.
Part of that is to maintain some surprises for our audience, part of it is ... we're not sure what we're singing yet!
But, just in case you're wondering, here are some songs we WON'T be singing on stage on December 11:
So... that leaves a lot of songs to choose from.
But maybe there are clues here for you...?