Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard – Julia Morgan Theater (Berkeley, CA)
“We heard the same lonesomeness, soul, hair-raising chill bumps, or whatever you want to call it…”
–Alice Gerrard, on her musical bond with Hazel Dickens
One side of the flyer for Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard’s reunion tour advertised another performance: All-Star Women of Contemporary Bluegrass, with singing instrumentalists Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick. In 1964, when Hazel & Alice first recorded, there weren’t any All-Star Women of Bluegrass to speak of. But out of stubbornness and old-time passion, Hazel & Alice blazed their own trail, demanding (and getting) artistic control at a time when producers ruled and women musicians were few and marginal.
Thirty-three years later, the bluegrass legends turned the sloping eaves of the Julia Morgan Theater into a church with an old-time music sacrament, channeling the lonesomeness and soul they drew from Bill Monroe and the Stanleys to the generations that came to receive them. The powerful simplicity of their performance was natural as breathing, just like in the early days.
Though still musically active, Hazel & Alice haven’t performed together much for decades. Throughout the evening, the friendly, multigenerational crowd could be overheard saying things like, “I’ve waited so many years!” and “I can’t believe this!”
In a way, the years showed; in a way, they didn’t. “A lot of water has gone under these two bridges,” Dickens remarked at the show’s beginning. But Dickens, who shouted and keened in her high-throated mountain voice, and mellower Gerrard, whose voice streamed sadness and resignation, were old when they were young. On this night, Gerrard sounded more weathered, softer, and Dickens frequently drove toward places she couldn’t reach. But the reverent crowd was there to take what the years had built up (inexhaustible knowledge of traditional music, wisdom, great guitar playing), along with what the years had ground down.
Backed by a seasoned three-piece on mandolin, fiddle, banjo and upright bass (Todd Gillis plays in Laurie Lewis’ band), the duo played two sets of originals, standards and obscure jewels, gaining confidence as the show went. Covers of Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe (his eerie gift to Hazel & Alice, “The One I Love Is Gone”) moved the crowd, but none so much as the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Loved You”. Delivered in the stronger second set, its sorrowful vocals and moral resignation (“You know if I’d cheat him, then I’d cheat you too”) made more than one audience member cry.
But it was Dickens’ originals, some from long-neglected solo records, that hit hardest. Recounting her decision to quit working and live on music (“I thought if I was going to starve, at least I’d be happy”), she launched into “Working Girl Blues”, notable for its old-time chops and rising lament: “I’m tired of working my life away/And giving somebody else all of my pay.” Latter-day standards such as “West Virginia” and “Mama’s Hand”, sung by Dickens alone, mourned the rural homeplaces many in the postwar generation left behind.
Gerrard’s solo turns seemed more folk-based, and though her gritty delivery lifted her songs from mere prettiness, they centered around too-precious poetic conceits, like a jeweled heart and an idyllic childhood hill. The exception was her masterpiece, “Mama’s Gonna Stay”, about a mother’s stolen early-morning solitude.
That the pair began and ended with songs by another folklore-hunting, duet-singing group, the Carter Family, made perfect sense. The crowd sang along with encore “Keep on the Sunny Side”, with the restrained joy of people singing an old tune that means more to them than they can admit. Kind of like in church.