Qualifying as a verbal person, it is a rarity that I am at a loss for words. However, there are events for which words can not do justice. It falls under the category of something you had to see or hear for yourself to fully understand its true essence and artistic quality. The performance of Caroline Doctorow with Pete Kennedy and the unique appearance of Mary McCaslin performing and discussing her music which has influenced generations of singers and songwriters at the University Café, on Sunday Afternoon, November 25th, was one such event. It was both an honor and a great pleasure to be there.
This concert was unique in many ways. First, Mary McCaslin is an icon in the world of American Country/Folk music, having recorded originals for Philo Records in the 1970’s. Ms. McCaslin has written such classics as “Prairie Sky,” “Young Westley,” and “Down the Road.” In addition to this, Mary McCaslin has received critical acclaim for her acoustic interpretations of the Beatles songs Things we said Today, and Blackbird, two very fine cover songs.
Her songs tell stories of the old west and the “mythic” characters who inhabited this romantic terrain. She writes the melodies for much of her music including “Back to Salinas” and “Northfield.” These songs, depict such scenes as “sunlight in the desert at the closing of the day,” ponies running “free as far as the eye can see,” a free spirited “gambler looking for a chance to play his game,” and “hills of brown and yellow, to make the soul unwind.” The back music, a bright two-step rhythm, brings to mind the old western plains and a way of life that has all but vanished from our American landscape. Ms. McCaslin’s songs evoke a time of wide open spaces, big blue skies and the universal theme of being able to follow a vision to wherever dream leads you; a place on the prairie where one carries all one owns “ in the poaches of my saddlebag with my bedroll tied behind.”
In addition to her idyllic lyrics and western ballads, Mary McCaslin’s distinctive western style, and upper-register vocal range are a perfect compliment to her style of country/folk music, as is her strong, clear, and precise acoustic guitar playing and finger picking. It is easy to understand why this gentle soul and genuine individual has influenced so many musicians over the past four decades inspiring cover songs by such artists as David Bromberg, Stan Rogers, and Tom Russell.
Let us add to this, the fact that Long Island’s own award winning, country singer/songwriter, Caroline Doctorow, who has just released the CD, I Carry All I Own the Songs of Mary McCaslin, produced by Pete Kennedy was also on stage performing her own music, mixed in with the songs of Mary MacCaslin. The excitement and sentiment of seeing one accomplished artist, Ms. Doctorow, paying homage to another who has greatly influenced her musical career, playing together on the same stage was very moving. Can you imagine magic? If you can, then you have some idea of what the evening was like; something that does not happen often and when it does, the feelings and music usually rise to a level only the people in the room can truly understand. This performance was at that caliber.
Caroline’s sweet whispering voice is always soothing and gentle as the “western wind” she sings about. Her adroit guitar playing and lucid strumming rhythms provides a crisp, beautiful canvas for “guitar wizard” Pete Kennedy. Max Johnson, an accomplished jazz musician in his own right, on the stand up base was extraordinary. Together with the melody of Russ Seeger on the fiddle, the band was a perfect blend of country/folk music that paid a great tribute to the music of Mary McCaslin. Ms. Doctorow’s renditions of Prairie in the Sky and Down the Road were strongly wrought and pure, a great tribute to her own artistic ability and to the person who originated them. I am quite certain Mary McCaslin was delighted to hear her music played in such a fine and true manner.
Sunday’s program at The University Café on the campus of Stony Brook University was created by Charles Backfish with the assistance of Amy Tuttle from The Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council. They are both to be congratulated as well. I look forward to hearing more from all who performed in the concert.