Live at the Freedom Foursquare Church in Portland, Oregon
Presented by Eastside Bluegrass
I remember The Dixie Chicks and the uproar over Natalie Maines’ comment about George Bush, then President and Dark Overlord of a once proud nation beginning to crumble, to the effect that she was ashamed that Bush was from Texas. It was a death knell for the group, in a way, as the new guard of Nashville called for their heads, seemingly secure in the belief that Bush was doing the right thing, and radio— well, many of the stations pulled the plug on the band. The song Maines was introducing at that moment, by the way, was Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier,” a song which was anti-war only in the magnification of what war does to each and all of us. I mean, have you ever noticed that only people who have not experienced war first-hand use the term “war is hell?” Those who have stay silent.
So when Gold Heart called kid sister Callie Gold up to the stage to sing halfway through their second set the other night, I thought I had heard the song before but could not place it (as much as I have listened to music over the years, so much of it runs together) but it didn’t matter. Callie brought an 11-year-old sensitivity which breathed new life into a song long buried by so many others over the years and forced me to listen with new ears. The performance itself was impressive, young Callie leading her elders through the paces, but what really made it special was how the family, all on stage but the mother, wrapped their voices and instruments around her and focused on her. To put it in its purest form, they were like elephants ready to protect the young at any and all cost. I asked her afterward why she chose the song and, in typical pre-teen style, she simply said that she had heard it and liked it, but there was more to it than that. From what I could see, it was a family moment that each shared most willingly. And I am sure the crowd understood.
I have been a fan of Gold Heart for a fistful of years, having written a review of their second album (My Sisters and Me) back in 2009 for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange. I wrote a review of their recent Places I’ve Been album too and thought it incredibly serendipitous that they should shortly thereafter be playing the Pacific Northwest. When I found that they were playing Portland at the Freedom Foursquare Church, I inked it in— no pencil for this one. They were fresh off of an appearance at The Darrington Bluegrass Festival and it was their first time on the West Coast. Who knew when they would be back?
Upon entering the room at the church, I knew it was a soundman’s challenge. A deep room with stage at the end, it opened at the right of the stage, the ceiling dropped for a third of the seats. A mere three feet would make a difference in sound and the soundman (I think named Chris Wolf) spent most of the night moving about between sessions on the board. As the show progressed the sound changed, mostly for the better (he could have miked Jocelyn’s guitar a bit louder, but it would not have been easy as she has a tendency to strum loud and pick light). Had he known the music well, though….. Trust me when I say running sound is not as easy as we think.
Gold Heart makes it easier, though. You could tell from the first note. Each member knew their places on stage, the three ladies (Analise Victoria— known casually as Tori, Jocelyn, and Shelby) each within striking distances of their mics but not restricted to them. They knew when to sing and when to rare back and let go and all I could think as the music unfolded was that they were born to sing together, the vocal DNA downright spine-chilling in places. Vocal leads and harmonies were equally traded throughout the two sets— sometimes raucous, sometimes angelic, but most times somewhere between.
They can play, too. They jigged and reeled it here and there, almost rocked it on a couple of songs, mandolin and guitar and banjo (provided very ably by kid brother Kai, a mere thirteen years of age) and bass (Papa Trent thrumming the standup). And while I hate to single out any one person because individually each was so good, Shelby had the golden touch on her fiddle and used it to perfection. When they wanted to, they could kick, for sure. (And they did)
But their strength, to my ears, were the vocal harmonies, especially on the hymns and ballads and my favorite, the high lonesome. Maybe you don’t know the term but I’m sure you’ve heard it. When the voices combine to reach a point at which the whole is truly more than its parts and reverberates within us all. They hit it plenty.
Not too much, though. You can overdo even the best of things and if Gold Heart is nothing else, it is a band with common purpose. The mix of songs, both originals and covers, was professional and music-driven and the stage presence warm and inviting.
I bought one of the CDs which eluded me earlier, Never Let Go, to accompany me on my long drive home and as I listened kept thinking how easy it would have been to just have stayed home. I do that a lot— talk about going and backing out at the last moment. Don’t make that mistake like I almost did. These guys (er, girls) are worth hearing and well worth any hassle it takes.
In fact, here is a link to their tour page (click here). Check it out. I love their albums, but seeing them live was confirmation. Like emcee Mason Smith said, Gold Heart is world class. Next time they come around, I will be dragging a few of my bluegrass-loving friends along with me. And I am sure they will thank me.