God bless David Ravel, artistic director of Alverno Presents. Given all of the truly incredible performances that have gone on at the Pitman Theater and Alverno Campus over the program’s impressive 50+ year history, Mr. Ravel deserves tremendous kudos for Alverno Presents and all it has brought to the Southeastern Wisconsin community over the years for artists and fans alike. The program will be sorely missed, but, in true Alverno Presents fashion, it is going out with perhaps some of the most unique and innovative performances yet. Last Saturday evening’s, “How to Write a Popular Song,” curated by Christopher Porterfield fit the bill as a truly special and unique performance.
Porterfield is most well-known as the singer/songwriter of the band Field Report, curated what essentially was an “uncovered” show at Alverno’s Pitman Theater on Saturday January 30. The concert explored the work of Charles K. Harris, a Milwaukee-born songwriter who was a fixture in the Tin Pan Alley scene during the turn of the 20th century. At the time Harris lived, “popular music” took on a very different meaning than it does today. People enjoyed hearing music in each other’s homes, often in elegant ‘Parlor Rooms’, where sheet music was performed — usually on piano or organ with accompanying vocals — by family and friends. Going to a live concert where music was performed by traveling players in a theater was something that most people in Milwaukee, and across the nation at the time, simply could not afford.
— AlvernoPresents (@AlvernoPresents) February 1, 2016
Self-proclaimed as “the king of the tear jerkers,” Charles K. Harris developed a reputation for composing ballads and waltzes, with downtrodden lyrics. His work to establish publishing rights for songwriters earned him a place of prominence in the music community, both locally and nationally. Harris, in fact, was the first artist to sell over a million copies of a piece, his 1891 hit “After the Ball.” In 1906, Harris wrote a manual for aspiring songsmiths titled How to Write a Popular Song, where he lays out a blueprint for how to write a hit. His formula? Write a song with no more than two verses (albeit long verses given today’s standards), copy others’ work, and have only one chorus.
With this history and background in mind, enter to the stage Christopher Porterfield, debonairly dressed in a crisp suit coat with green sweater and white collared shirt, declaring from behind a lectern placed on stage, “Welcome to the Parlour,” at the onset of the performance. Porterfield, in many ways, both looked like and played the part of college professor, unpacking the songs to provide a context for the listeners. The concert was divided into two acts. Act One — The songs of Charles K. Harris (Re)interpreted, and Act Two — New Songs Written Following the Instructions (in part) of Charles H. Harris’s How to Write a Popular Song. For this endeavor, Porterfield assembled an incredibly talented and eclectic cast of performers including Caitlin Canty, Barry Clark, Phil Cook, Andrew Fitzpatrick, Dave Godowsky, Monica Martin, Shane Leonard, Ryan Necci and Thomas Wincek.
While Harris may have been the impetus for the show, the ‘parlor’ quality of the performance is what stood out. Along with the lectern, several vintage chairs resembling the interior design of the period were assembled in a semi-circle on stage right, allowing the ensemble to take turns performing material and sitting back and admiring the work created by their contemporaries and friends. The palpable level of joy, camaraderie, and tactile excitement for performing in front of others made the musicians in this ensemble stand out, both individually and as a collective unit.
The first act focused on the artists wrestling with Harris’s material. “After the Ball,” went from a slow morose dirge (sung by Harris) to an upbeat jangly performance as Porterfield put his own spin on the track. Another Harris song, “Dreaming, Love, Of You,” was performed by Dave Godowsky with sweeping guitarscapes. Caitlin Canty, whose soulful vocals were a highlight of the night, beautifully told the sad story of “While The Dance Goes On” which ends abruptly with the death of an infant.
Harris penned songs about patriotism as well as songs with less-inclusive undertones; research into his life and history reveals his views on race relations at the time were not, shall we say, progressive. A former minstrel performer himself, Harris wrote many songs for minstrel shows. Shane Leonard, most well-known as the drummer for Field Report, took on this topic full-force with his interpretation of “There Is No Flag Like The Red, White and Blue.” This chilling performance showcased Leonard’s bass vocals singing the patriotic number while the other performers recited, in spoken-word, minstrel-era lyrics. Monica Martin put it best when she declared, “Thank you, Charles K. Harris, you racist scathing entrepreneur.”
The closing of the first act featured the show’s highlight, a reinterpretation of “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven,” a song about a young girl losing her mother. However, instead of the brooding original score, Ryan Necci, singer/songwriter of local Americana group Buffalo Gospel, and hiscollaborators reimagined the song in a style that would have easily put this track musically alongside The Band’s “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” featuring astonishing vocal harmonies between Necci and Caitlin Canty.
The second act featured the artists cutting loose a little more from the constraints of the Harris material, reflecting on what they learned (or didn’t) from reading How To Write A Popular Song. Phil Cook started the set with a soulful piano-driven track about his grandmother, “Without A Trace.” Monica Martin’s vocals showcased her bluesy swagger as she debuted “Conditional Love,” a track she is working on with her band, Phox. A stand out of act two was Caitlin Canty’s “Still Pretty Good On A Bad Night,” which allowed her vocals to soar on a track she attempted to pen in the more popular country “Sheryl Crow” style. Shane Leonard took the lead on the set closer, “Maybe Our Love (Is Like A Popular Song)”, a track he composed from the perspective of Charles K. Harris’s wife and her relationship with her hustling husband.
After a rousing standing ovation, the ensemble reassembled on stage for a reprise of “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven,” where Necci and Canty’s gospel vocals nearly blew the roof off of the Pitman Theater. Needless to say, this sent the crowd home happy and smiling, honoring this great collective ensemble of players with a thunderous round of applause. As with all of the Alverno Presents shows, each is a one-time performance meant to leave the audience and performers with enduring take-aways. The love of songs and passion for performing was felt in every musician on stage for this extraordinary event, and left the audience with a profound sense of what it might have been like to gather with family and friends and perform songs in the parlor.
Perhaps smiling most of all was Porterfield himself, who, in bringing these incredible musicians together, unlocked the best part of experiencing music live — assembling people together in a shared space to interact with something special and unique. Just as people in turn-of-the-20th-century-America gathered in parlors to hear Harris’ songs performed by family and friends, the lucky crowd at the Pitman Theater on this Saturday night, too, felt this “parlor magic” from the players on stage.
Please see our preview for this show, here of Alverno Presents