"Meeting Across The Water" - A gospel group singing traditional and original compositions
The Belmont United Methodist Church
421 Common St., Belmont,MA
May 11, 2013
Sponsored by Tremedal Concerts/Watertown-El Salvador Series
"Meeting Across The Water"? What kind of name is that for a band? Well, when you consider they perform gospel with roots and rhythms from continents from Africa to North America plus a range of blues and pop made famous by both black and white artists, you get the idea.
This is music aimed at your heart. When you come to a concert like this, you leave your cultural identity at the door. You're going to be touched spiritually, and occasionally playfully. Disturbing headlines of the day will dissipate like early morning fog burned off by the sun. You will experience the power of music as a healing and nourishing balm.
Many in the audience were friends of the performers, fellow singers or supporters of Boston's Mystic Chorale, with whom the members of Meeting Across The Water sing. For a non-singer like me, The Mystic Chorale is one of the best-kept secrets around town. Founded in 1990, it’s an amazing group of upwards of 200 people who love to sing. No audition required, just a commitment to show up at every practice and learn to sing with a bunch of people you’ve probably never met before…and produce harmonies that make the world a more joyous place, healing and uplifting for the singers and everyone who experiences them in concert. Anyone from the age of 13 to Grandma Moses may join.
And that is where Louise Grasmere (vocals and percussion), Fred Griffeth (vocals), Jonathan Singleton (vocals, keyboards), and Eric Kilburn (vocals, guitar, mandolin) met and decided to join forces in 2008.
“Meeting Across The Water” turned out to be a meeting across two towns when the venue had to be changed at the very last minute from the First Parish of Watertown to the Belmont United Methodist Church in Belmont. Since much of the group’s repertoire includes gospel music, a certain degree of divine intervention undoubtedly helped the smooth transition.
The concert begins as the group promenades down the aisle toward the altar singing "People Get Ready.” Halfway down the aisle, they’re joined in song by the entire "congregation".
You would think that singing from an altar would be a marriage made in heaven for musicians. Normally the group sits in a semi circle where they can maintain eye contact and acoustic contact with each other. Tonight, vocalists Louise Grasmere and Fred Griffeth sit on a lower tier of the altar; guitar/mandolin/vocalist Eric Kilburn and guest percussionist Linda Shoemaker sit above them on the next tier. Keyboard/piano player Jonathan Singleton sits off to the side one level below them. Not ideal. This group has not sung together since February and at first the harmonies are little off-balance. Without their customary eye and ear contact, it takes them time get to tuned in to each other.
Louise Grasmere helps coalesce the group with a richly soulful rendition of "Please Send Me Someone to Love," the classic 1952 Percy Mayfield composition. Tentative through the first verse, she downshifts and sings straight from her emotional core, just the way a song like this needs to be sung to do it justice. Mayfield’s bluesy ballad with a social message about discrimination fits right in with most of the Meeting Across The Water repertoire. It’s a sermon in a song and Grasmere delivers it with gritty soulful passion. Louise is locked in.
For the rest of the evening, Louise and Fred Griffeth share the vocal load with Eric Kilburn. After Eric Kilburn’s quiet cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s early 20th century blues “The Soul Of A Man,” he introduces his own “Jesus Ain’t Walking Through That Door” with a pointed anecdote. “The Unitarian Universalist First Parish in Concord, MA, established about 350 years ago, recently appointed its first gay minister." He recalled one of the minister’s memorable quotes: "The road to heaven ain’t always straight." The audience laughs and cheers, fueling an upbeat romp through the gospel tune.
Fred Griffeth’s solos are surprisingly muted. This is a guy who nails songs with crowd pleasing infectious and creative energy at Toad in Cambridge every Wednesday night. His style and energy could set the place on fire if he lit it up with Louise. Where is the real Fred, I wondered to myself as I listened to him sing songs like "Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and “Sun Gonna Shine In My Backdoor Someday” and "You Send Me." When he didn’t join Louise in her spontaneous scat finish to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Trouble In Mind,” I was dumbfounded.
During the intermission I ask Fred Griffeth about the power of music as a
source of healing and comfort.
“Music calls down the spirit,” Fred replies. Our collective psyches are bathed in its light.
The group assembles for the second set. Louise is nowhere in sight. Fred Griffeth, in a moment of inspiration, waves to a fellow in the second row. “How ‘bout joining me in a song?” The gray haired fellow spritely moves to sit beside Fred. “We haven’t sung this in a while but …”
Fred busts out a lively version “Life Is A Ballgame”, a humorous gospel tune that mixes Bible references with our national pastime. The invited guest adds a perfect bass counterpoint to the lyrics. I wouldn’t believe it possible to locate Job, Moses, Satan, and Jesus on a baseball diamond and make it a spiritual catechism that makes a home run of a life lesson to infectious music. The playful, stylin’ singer I know Fred Griffeth to be emerges. He has the ability to light that church up brighter than a nativity scene. With the exception of " Life Is A Ballgame,” it didn’t happen.
The group takes a brief break and returns with Ms. Grasmere. She returns with a second wind that fills her sails and launches her into the spiritually charged “Hush, Hush Somebody’s Callin’ My Name ” that she belts out with every fiber in her body. Music is truly calling down the spirit.
Eric Kilburn tells the story of Billy Joel’s daughter asking her father where people go when they die. Joel walked into the next room and composed “Lullaby.” Kilburn softly sings the lovely answer to the girl’s question.
It’s hard to underestimate keyboard/piano player Jonathan Singleton’s effect on the music tonight. His subtle underpinning of every song with inventive piano riffs captures the emotional and musical pulse of the group’s singing. Every so often he wheels from his electric keyboard to a piano on yet another level a few feet away. No matter which he plays, you hear a musician remarkably in tune with his group.
The rest of the set is filled with an original Louise Grasmere ode to her late friend and mentor Baba Olatunji and covers of songs by Richie Havens, James Taylor, and Sam Cooke.
The concert ends with the group parading up the aisle singing a muscular version of "Jesus On the Mainline" to which the audience joyously adds choruses, whoops and applause. For this one night, Louise Grasmere is the soul of this group, galvanizing the audience, singing with emotion and soul that truly befit gospel at its best.
"People Get Ready" – Sung by the group: a 1965 Percy Mayfield gospel influenced composition showing his growing interest in the social and political tenor of the 1960s
"Soul Of A Man" Eric Kilburn sings a Blind Willie Johnson (1902-1947) ballad from the early 20th century. Most of the 30 songs he recorded during a three-year period around 1930 have been covered by scores of musicians and church choirs. Johnson's slide guitar playing is legendary.
"Please Send Me Someone To Love" - Louise Grasmere sings another Percy Mayfield composition, a bluesy romantic ballad with a social message about discrimination, fits right in with the kind of songs Meeting Across The Water sings
Heaven please send to all mankind,
Understanding and peace of mind,
And if it's not asking too much,
Please send me someone to love.
Show the world how to get along,
Peace will enter when hate is gone,
But if it's not asking too much,
Please send me someone to love.
“I Wish I Could Be Free” - Fred Griffeth sings an upbeat version of a Christian Willisohn composition
“Jesus Ain’t Walking Through That Door” - Louise, Fred. Eric and Jonathan rock through Eric Kilburn's original gospel rafter-raiser.
“Baba's Prayer” - Louise Grasmere introduces a song she wrote about her friend and mentor Baba Olatunji, the late Nigerian drummer and activist who was in the forefront of introducing world music.
“A tradition in Guinea is for a singers to gather
the community under a banyan tree and sing praises ('Sotemabandani') about
great people they have known and pay tribute to the elders, ancestors and
teachers.” Louise says. “I was inspired by the tradition to compose this song of
praise about my dear friend.” She asks guest percussionist Linda Shoemaker to
step down from the tier above her and play in traditional Guinean rhythms. One
of the verses, "Love is the only purpose we need to serve," propels
the heart of the song. The whole group joins playing mandolin, drums, piano. A
gossamer meditative tinge of wistfulness hovers over the song.
"Poor Wayfaring Stranger” Fred Griffeth lead vocal, sings this early 1800s folk/spiritual song
"Trouble in mind" - first recorded in 1924, a slow eight bar blues written in 1924 by Richard M. Jones. Listen to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s 1941 version to appreciate this one.
“Life Is A Ballgame” by Sister Wynona Carr, published by Specialty Records
1952, sung by Fred Griffeth and an unidentified member of the audience who supplies a bass line. Fred hits this one out of the park. The lyrics are too much fun not to include below.
The Ball Game by Sister Wynona Carr
Life is a ballgame
Bein' played each day
Life is a ballgame
Everybody can play
Jesus is standin' at home plate
Waitin' for you there
Life is a ballgame, but
You've got to play it fair.
First base is temptation,
The second base is sin
Third base tribulation
If you pass you can make it in
Ol' man Solomon is the umpire
And Satan is pitchin the game
He'll do his best to strike you out
Keep playin' just the same.
Daniel was the first to bat
You know he prayed three times a day
When Satan threw him a fast ball
You know he hit it anyway
Job came in the next inning
Satan struck him in every way,
But job he hit a home run
And came on in that day.
Prayer will be your strong bat
To hit at Satan's ball
And when you start to swing it
You've got to give it your all in all
Faith will be your catcher
On him you can depend
And Jesus is standing at Home Plate
Just waitin for you to come in.
Moses is standin' on the side lines
Just waitin’ to be called
And when he parted the Red Sea
He gave Christ his all-in-all
John came in the last inning
When the game was almost done
Then God gave John a vision
And he knew he’d already won.
SECOND SET - AFTER BRIEF BREAK, LOUISE RETURNS
“Lullaby” Eric Kilburn tells story of Billy Joel’s daughter asking him where do people go when they die, Joel walked into next room and composed this song.
“Hush,Hush Somebody’s Callin’ My Name” traditional gospel, Louise, Fred and group
"Here Comes the Sun" – Fred covers this George Harrison song often sung by the late (I have to get used to adding that qualifying word) Richie Havens.
Song by James Taylor, song by Linda. Lovely. Another opportunity for audience participation, to which members in the audience enthusiastically respond.
"You Send Me" – Fred Griffeth covers this Sam Cooke original
"Jesus On the Mainline" – the Meeting On The Waters group dances up the church aisle with this finale. Google the song and find scores of covers of this traditional gospel rocker.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.