A memorable New York Songwriter’s Circle Christmas at the Bitter End
Every year, the New York Songwriter’s Circle hosts an annual Christmas celebration at The Bitter End. Tina Shafer, the head of ceremonies and founder of the NYSC, curates the performance, gathering talents from the present and past, known and unknown, and inundating us with beautiful songs. On Monday December 21st we enjoyed a festive and enchanting night – one that resounded with holiday spirit and untold surprises.
I walked in to a packed house. Not only were all the tables and floor space occupied, but the stage too. The stage was teeming with faces of all ages. Tina was leading a Christmas song full of harmony, counter-movement and percussive accompaniment; the room was awash in good cheer.
Kicking off the night, was George and Matthew Diebel – a father-son duet who sung of peace and healing. The two had crafted a pitch-perfect Hanukkah song; father on guitar, with his son singing lead vocals clear as a silver bell. As with all of Tina’s gatherings, the bar for vocal technique, clarity and control is very high, and the audience was not opposed. The duo set the stage for the events to come, as a resounding “Amen” concluded the reverential introductory song.
Immediately following, Tina launched into ‘Crack the Sky’ – the first number off her latest album “The Good Ones”. Full of guitarists strumming, cahones banging and feet stomping, the harmonies were seamless and poignant, entering dramatically in “far from the old mistakes”, with lower lines that fleshed out impactful and joyous melodies. The song’s country drive harnessed all of the night’s energy; pooling the songwriters together before setting them on solo courses.
First up in the rounds was Janekelley Williams, a female soloist hailing from the South. Her song took on an expansive, country feel, one that filled up the room, suggesting a highway spirit billowing out of a roadside bar. Her lyrics soulfully proclaimed, “just for a moment, set worry down”; she stood strong by her mantra as declared before the song: “no fear, no anger, be yourself.” Her presence had a thorough calming affect, and the room sat still after the last chord.
Next up was Andrew Fortier, a renowned master-writer from Long Island; his presence has graced NYSC stages before and he was happy to be back. His song was exquisite: solemn yet uplifting, giving the listener the feeling of driving into the sunset. He told of “following the tracks to the other side of wisdom” – not without a little Christmas flare and rhythmic playfulness.
Tina’s son Ari performed a song called “Breathing Underwater”. His voice honed a sensitive yet far-resounding tenor, poppy yet rich, with echoes of Maroon 5. While uplifting and redemptive in the chorus, the bridge insinuated an element of college angst. He beckoned: “life’s a big boat floating up above, I’m just waiting to care”. The song was momentous and hit close to home, especially given Ari’s full guitar and vocal competency.
A long-standing accompanist to the New York Songwriter’s Circle was Kevin Bents. It was clear from the get-go that he and Tina had shared the stage before; this became evident in their harmonizing. The song he performed on guitar was brilliantly melodic, with a sweeping key change for the chorus. His high soulful voice weaved in and out of the lines, exclaiming “Saiiiiil down” and concluding with the lamented: “I can’t carry you anymore”.
The last performer on the circuit was John Schmitt. His hearty voice evoked misty, smoke-ridden Irish hymns. The tone melancholic yet redemptive as he proclaimed: “I can see a better time, when our dreams come true, so I die for the very first time”. Optimism flowed through the room as he “watched his pipe dreams pass away”.
The mood thickened as the songwriters made their second rounds – more fully embracing their fellowship on stage. Particularly moving was Andrew Fortier’s family band. His son and daughter joined him for “The Blue Ones” – a 3-part harmony that ROCKED the house. The song had a joyous country swagger and exploded with youthful glow. His two kids – a young son about 14 and a daughter no older than 18, were buoyant, charming and magical; they masterfully harmonized along to Andrew’s awesome song. It was fluent, effortless and truly a spectacle to behold. This family is long overdue for a public appearance on national television – they are that good! Tina’s performance of “Flash” was also highly memorable in addition to Janekelly’s heart-rending account of her relationship with her mentally handicapped brother Walter.
Bringing this wonderful night to a close was a very special surprise. Tina called up Julie Gold, who wrote the wonderful song “From A Distance”. I remember singing along to this song in elementary school as gorgeous images of planet earth were projected through my youthful open mind. It brought me back to times less troubled, less fraught with struggle and introversion, and sung beautifully, honestly, by Judy herself.
And most of the artists on stage, they’re there because of some kind of struggle – whether imposed from without or within. This earthly, human struggle that occupies us so incessantly, that has led to countless wars and miscommunication, and manifests itself in the artist as something that needs to be reckoned with. Judy brought us back from ourselves, at least for a moment, tapping into that wonderful depth of Spirit that came through in her song:
From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,
it’s the heart of every man.
This was a sentiment that everyone so tastefully echoed on this evening at the New York Songwriter’s Circle. It was a night to be truly remembered, and one that we can carry in our hearts for the New Year.