So often in music, the string-snapping, cymbal-smashing and tonsil-tearing performances are the ones that are deemed “passionate.” However, there was a most intense stillness to the back room of Balliceaux this past Sunday evening as Jonathan Vassar & The Speckled Bird performed their brand of eclectic and, yes, passionate folk music for a raptly attentive audience that filled every available booth, chair and coach seat (as well as the spaces in between).
It was an eventful evening to begin with, as it was the group’s first show with a revamped lineup. In addition to the familiar combination of Jonathan Vassar’s acoustic guitar and lead vocals, his wife Antonia’s accordion and backup vocals, and Joshua Quarles’ clarinet and occasional electric guitar, Paul Watson — a newcomer to the Speckled Bird, but a seasoned Vassar collaborator — added a skillfully restrained cornet and Barry-White-low vocals, rounding out a truly unique yet harmonious and cohesive unit.
Songs like “Take It From Me” (which has been stuck in my head all week) and “Face Of My Father” sounded wonderfully full and realized, with the heat of Watson’s cornet providing a strong counterbalance to the coolness of Quarles’ clarinet and guitar tones and Vassar’s smooth and steady lyrical delivery. New song “Heron and the Hummingbird” shined, as did “Black Canyon,” with Watson holding down the low register in a beautifully executed three-part harmony.
Watson proved to be one of the show’s highlights, and not simply because of his status as the new guy within the band. Watching him do battle with the cornet’s natural inclination toward soaring volumes was impressive to say the least, and he acknowledged in conversation after the show how difficult it is to keep that particular instrument under such strict control. The tension this effort built was enchanting, as the restraint he exhibited mirrored perfectly the quiet concentration offered by the audience, pushing the natural intensity found in Vassar’s music to another level.
But the fact that Balliceaux’s back room took on this particular temperature — quiet observation broken only by generous applause — should come as no surprise. Vassar’s own performance and songwriting, which offer generous helpings of pregnant silence and lyrics that are replete with natural imagery, make it easy to imagine yourself walking through a peaceful forest, miles from the next human being, soaking in the beauty of the surrounding flora and fauna. Just as a crisp, sunny winter’s day spent appreciating the beauty of nature feels like a rare and precious gift, so did Sunday’s performance, and the Vassars were kind enough to place a tastefully ornate bow on their gift by offering up a duet of “Match Made In Heaven” as an encore, bringing the evening to a close with style and grace.
Jonathan Vassar & The Speckled Bird — “The Song of the Swallow“