The Wailin’ Jennys
Lincoln Theatre, Mount Vernon, WA
April 10, 2010, 3:00 p.m. performance
The first time the Wailin’ Jennys appeared at the Lincoln Theatre (Mount Vernon, WA) in 2008, it snowed. While you might not find that strange, the trio came to Mount Vernon in April and in the midst of the annual tulip festival which draws thousands of tourists from around the world. Two years later, the Jennys arrived again during the height of tulip season, though this time, traffic jams that practically paralyzed the small city of Mount Vernon provided an obstacle for the concert goers and the musicians (the matinee and evening concerts sold out). The musicians showed up late for the sound check, after enduring tulip traffic, as it has become to known by locals.
After what seemed like an endless delay, the theatre filled up to its capacity and the musicians strode out onto the stage opening with their classic, “Beautiful Dawn” (Ruth Moody on guitar/lead vocals, Nicky Mehta on drums/harmonica/vocals, Heather Masse on bass/vocals and Jeremy Penner on fiddle). Mehta’s “Arlington” another classic and Emmy Lou Harris’ rousing “Deeper Well” also appeared in the opening set of songs.
The Jennys provided hungry ears with a combination of older material, favorite covers and new songs yet-to-be-released. The musicians provided lush musical environments even with their barebones instrumental setup or when the women launched into their signature 3-part a cappella harmonies as with Gershwin’s “Summer Time” or with the Irish classic, “The Parting Glass” which ended the afternoon concert. Of course every time the vocalists launched into an unaccompanied piece, a baby or two in the audience would chip in its own vocal harmonies.
The newest member of the group, Masse who took the lead on “Summer Time,” Ledbetter’s “Bring Me L’il Water Silvy,” the traditional “Motherless Child” and her own compositions, carried the weight of the band. Many fans of NPR’s “The Prairie Home Companion” have been graced with Masse’s regular appearances. And her debut solo album, “Bird Song” (Red House Records) sold out copies in just months after its release.
Oozing charisma in a silky blue frock with black cowboy boots and sporting a tan which she acquired on a recent Prairie Home Companion Caribbean cruise, Masse grabbed the spotlight without trying. She set loose her vocals holding nothing back. Her vocal range that slides from low and smoky to jazzy soprano would be the envy of any vocalist, but hopefully her talents just inspire other vocalists. And the smile that radiated from her face for most of the performance certainly captivated audience members. Now, there’s a woman living her passion.
The other two singers, Mehta and Moody held their own, though Mehta must have felt exhausted playing the dual role of new mother and Jenny. The mezzo-soprano (also sings alto) performed my favorite Jennys songs, “Arlington” and “Begin” with vocals that have grown gutsier and more powerful over the years. Her humor about her nine month old twins (who were backstage with their nanny), certainly created an intimate environment between members of the audience and the performers. She presented at least two new songs and the one with the title “Away, but Not Gone” which she performed on a ukulele nearly knocked me out with its magical and beautiful melody. You could hear audience members holding their breath and soaking in the song’s otherworldliness. The song felt angelically-inspired. I’m not talking new age, but the real deal.
Moody appeared well-rested after the band’s sabbatical. She brought new songs and played the old chestnuts with renewed vigor, as if songs from the band’s first two albums were written yesterday. Wearing an orange tulip-like dress with ruby slippers, she easily switched from percussion to guitar, banjo, and accordion. She brimmed over with mirth often doling out jokes about her band mates. She commented on Penner striking a “GQ” pose which lead to hilarity or about Mehta’s multitasking efficiency which also invited a few chuckles from the audience. She also led a cappella songs in which she excels, but the gospel number about a storm (from the yet to be released album), sent shivers up my spine. In addition she dusted off and presented her signature tunes, “One Voice” and “Glory Bound” to an enthusiastic audience.
Meanwhile fiddler Penner dressed in black hung out in the shadows of the stage squeezing in a few virtuosic moments. His solo on “Deeper Well” ignited applause (which is déjà vu to the performance on the Jennys’ live CD). He seemed to have matured in the past two years from boyish to mannish, as Moody put it. He recently became a proud father of a little girl.
As a music researcher and lover of various types of music, I believe that these musicians compose extraordinary songs. On the surface they skirt through various genres ranging from jazz to country and folk, but those carefully calibrated harmonies, lyrics, instrumental arrangements, sweeping melodies, and joyful vibrations create a real healing environment. I feel that the Jennys’ music surpasses most new age sound healing CDs. And I prefer to listen to acoustic music with lush harmonies as opposed to synthesizer drones married to singing-bowls any day. (Of course in some healing circumstances, the singing-bowls come in handy).
Whether the “Jenny Effect” is intentional or accidental, the harmonies, chord progressions, and strong melodies bring powerful healing and transformation. I have recovered from intense migraines listening to the Jennys’ music. I have heard reports from others who found similar relief from the Wailin’ Jennys’ songs, both live and recorded. So is it any wonder that fans would brave traffic snarls to attend sold-out concerts? Even the stress of getting trapped in traffic or searching for a parking spot would be erased after listening to the first few songs that the women performed. Graced with sincerity and innocence the songs lack pretension and authentically come from the heart.
As I sat in the audience soaking in their songs, I savored the last notes that resolved each song and I pondered the healing genius of the music. Each song provided emotional closure, except for the humorous interpretation of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe through the Tulips” which ended more in mirth than in harmony. But laughter is good medicine too and the Jennys shared much humor with the audience comprised of mostly devoted fans. And there were moments where it felt more like friends gathering together and sharing intimate secrets, than a concert. They hadn’t performed the tulip song since the last concert in Mount Vernon in 2008. Would anyone but a Skagitonian get the joke?
The traffic jams will be forgotten, the tulips will decompose to return next April along with the thousands of tourists that descend on the valley like migrating geese (we get those too), but I still recall the Wailin’ Jennys first concert in Mount Vernon in vivid details. And their return trip already feels like a fond memory. The healing exchange between musicians and audience members can only be described in one word—priceless.
Patricia Herlevi is the owner of The Whole Music Experience, a journalist, researcher, and musician with an interest in cross cultural music exchange and the healing power of music. Her work has been published on World Music Central, Global Rhythm and Early Music America, among other publications.