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Hootenany groups sing their hearts out

By Ariel Kay
On September 20, 2011

Hootenanny: According to, the term means "an informal session at which folk singers and instrumentalists perform for their own enjoyment." This is a perfect description of the concert that took place on Saturday night in the Slosberg Recital Hall, titled "Hootenanny with Pesky J. Nixon."

The concert, headlined by the Massachusetts-based folk group Pesky J. Nixon, fronted by alumnus Ethan Baird '02, also featured performances by Brandeis a cappella group Starving Artists and the Barbara Cassidy Band—composed of Prof. Eric Chasalow (MUS) and his wife Barbara Cassidy MA '98.

Cassidy opened the show with an a cappella solo performance of the Irish ballad "The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood," a lilting number with a pastoral theme. Chasalow joined Cassidy at the end of the song and introduced the group, adding that they were excited for the opportunity to play with the two other featured bands. "We're the serious part of the night," joked the professor.

Despite this comment, the duo's next two numbers, both originals, were much livelier and sounded more like typical folk music than the traditionals they had opened with. In between songs, Chasalow told the audience how he had recently returned to folk music after focusing on modern classical music for most of his career. He said that he had started writing folk songs as an undergrad but stopped because his lyrics were "just terrible." However, he picked up his guitar a short time ago and tried his luck again. This time, Cassidy wrote the lyrics and Chasalow supplied the music.

This combination works well for the Barbara Cassidy Band. Chasalow is an excellent musician, and it was easy for the audience to tell that he was enjoying himself onstage. Cassidy's lyrics are honest and fit within traditional folk themes such as lost loves and wandering souls. As Chasalow puts it, "Barbara started writing page after page of terrific lyrics that I felt really strongly about these and inspired me to write."

Two members of Pesky J. Nixon (named for Red Sox players Johnny Pesky, Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon) joined Chasalow and Cassidy for their last number. Jake Bush (accordion, lead and backing vocals) and Dan Karp (percussion and backing vocals) added a rich and complex tone to this final song. In an interview with justArts, Chasalow remarked that he and his wife "were flattered to be asked [to perform]" alongside PJN.

Starving Artists followed this compilation with four songs of their own. The group appeared very excited to be part of the performance. Starving Artist's musical director and choreographer Jordan Brown '12 shared the group's feelings about being part of the event: "Pesky J. Nixon has an incredible sense of musicality that transcended the line of genre, and everyone in Starving Artists, at least, was absolutely blown away by the beautiful lyricism, harmonies and songwriting that [the band] brought to every song they performed." Each member was beaming—no easy feat to accomplish while singing.

The ensemble sang a mix of folk and pop hits, including songs by Rob Thomas and Carrie Underwood. Their final song, "Last Name," featuring Lindsay Tsopelas '12, was the sassy, high-energy highlight of their set.

After Starving Artists exited, PJN lead singer and guitarist Baird came onstage to introduce the band. It was quickly apparent that he is both a talker and a storyteller. He began by sharing how meaningful the University is to him. The singer was in an a cappella troupe as an undergrad, the now-defunct Spur of the Moment, and he mentioned how happy he was that PJN was able to collaborate with both Starving Artists and the Barbara Cassidy Band as part of Hootenanny.

PJN's music is an ideal blend of vocal harmonies and skilled instrumentation. Bush's accordion added an unexpected, lyrical tone while Karp's percussion—several hand drums and cymbals as opposed to a full drum kit—gave the music a softer, less staccato vibe than can be achieved with drumsticks. Baird's voice, deep and just a touch raspy, traveled from the stage to the audience and wrapped the listeners inside the songs' stories. The music brought on a feeling that was comfortable, cozy and familiar. "Their songs are so completely natural and well-made that they quickly hook you in. They often use beautiful three-part harmonies, and their sound is also defined by the very sensitive arrangements that feature accordion and hand percussion," said Chasalow.

Baird shared several humorous anecdotes from the band's time together. His account of their rise to popularity was particularly memorable. PJN first learned that their music was being played on the radio about a year ago. Unfortunately, the radio station that had picked them up was located in Melbourne, Australia. From there, the song migrated up East Asia and through Russia to the West Coast of the United States until finally making its way to New England, where the band lives. Today, they have a fair amount of success on folk and country radio stations throughout the country, particularly on college radio.

The trio played several call-and-response numbers before its big finale, in which they brought Starving Artists and Chasalow back up on stage. The "hootenanny" aspect of the concert worked well for these three groups, which all collaborated well together. Each of their styles enhanced the tone of the songs overall. After the performance, Brown enthused, "Everyone in Starving Artists agreed after the performance tonight that this was one of the most fun and unique gigs we've ever gotten to do. … If the opportunity to do something similar in the future arose, we would jump at it."

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