William Pilgrim: Live at the Ice House with The Blind Boys of Alabama
The podcast, Live at the Ice House with William Pilgrim and the All Grows up is a living document of the growth of two artists from the streets of L.A. and Orange County to the recording studios of Hollywood where in the latest episode with they are joined by The Blind Boys of Alabama including Jimmy Carter-the oldest touring member of the group. The broadcast also brings together social commentator, writer and activist, Kevin Alexander Gray, modern artist-poet, David (Judah 1) Oliver and up and coming singer-songwriter, Josh (Lesedi Lo-Fi) Douglas. Also featured is narrator Exene Cervenka, legendary poet, writer, activist and musician. She is one of the founding members of L.A.’s own seminal punk band, X. The episode is a well-paced production directed by photographer, Scott Montgomery.
The duo, William Pilgrim and The All Grows Up, are PM Romero; a seasoned musician and songwriter in his early 40’s, and gifted writer and vocalist, 28 year-old Ishmael “Ish” Herring. They are no homogenized, postured or blandly calculated folk duo marketed by a saavy publicity agency to just the right demographic soon to appear on NPR. No such plan can be detected here. Rather, like many of the best blues, folk, country and jazz musicians of the last century, the sound that has grown from their partnership comes from the hard ground of personal life experience over the last ten years. As their first release, The Great Recession, demonstrates, their music is not bred in corporate studios or sponsored showcases. Rather, it is from the homeless streets of today’s often disenfranchised youth and overlooked veterans of the music industry. It is a new gathering, a new vision that shakes up the status quo. What they are doing stands in contrast to the angry, cynical punk and rap scenes of the past that tend to spiral down into hypocrisy and self-destruction or commercial compromise and mediocrity. William Pilgrim is filled to the brim with the joy and passion of song. Their music is the dance that carries a clear underlying gospel feel and results in hope and the kind of change that can save the world, as Exene Cervenka eludes to in episode 4.
The California desert must have been a lonely and desolate place to young Ishmael “Ish” Herring, when he found himself, after years of living in foster homes in Kansas and the streets of New Orleans, alone again. In Kansas as a young child he could sing from the depth of his being, and was groomed for a career in gospel music. If gospel means good news, he must have wondered where that news was as he shook the high desert dust of his jeans and kept moving south. But, as he found his way to Hollywood, Los Angeles, and finally to Orange County, he left the self- limiting religious training of his childhood behind like so much dry, dead skin. He answered a different call. A new vocation was born inside of him. It was a call to challenge himself to his own higher purpose. But, for Ish, the new birth wasn’t to pray to a far-off external being but, rather to affirm his own internal sense of value and worth. “There’s a new person waking up inside me.” He said in a recent interview. “I thought I was called to bring people to Christ. I thought God wanted me to be a preacher. My church though had their own celebrities. It was like Mick Jagger in a robe.” He laughed. “But, I found that what I was looking for was found in all humanity.” He smiled and with an insightful light in his eyes said, “I found I had to put faith in humanity, not an invisible man.”
PM Romero was an artist on his own two years ago when he read an odd online ad asking if anyone needed a vocalist for one hundred dollars a track. Romero had been a songwriter for years. He was deeply rooted in the music of the 1960s, but had created his own vision of the music from the era for today. He found himself identifying most with the non-category “category” called Americana music.
In 2011 when the Occupy Movement first emerged, Romero began writing songs that spoke to the concerns of that population. The songs became a vehicle for the sense of mission and change he felt there. When he answered homeless youth, Ishmael Herring’s ad, the project took on a higher purpose.
The purpose was a movement of true gospel music and message. The gospel they created came from their own inner-light and shined out from every word and note of the songs they recorded. The focus of the Live at the Ice House episodes has been about teen homelessness and what they found on the streets are diamonds in the ashes of “discarded” people. What Phil and Ish have done is the truest form of alchemy.
The “Rock & Role Models-Episode 4” of Live at The Ice House, released for viewing Tuesday, September 3rd, is centered on the day of a recording session. After rehearsal and laying down tracks with Romero, Ish sits outside and talks with activist, writer Kevin Alexander Gray. Gray comes from a background that emphasized education and he pioneered integration in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Era. For Ish, things have come full circle. He is more closely related to Jesse Fuller than to any cultural figure Gray can relate to. Their conversation becomes heated when the subject of Jay Z comes up. Among the most popular and critically successful pop artist today, Gray says the rapper comes from ‘rape culture,’ and wishes he’d go away. For Ish, Jay Z represents the pinnacle of success and material wealth, not something he’s ready to deny.
Then, The Blind Boys of Alabama show up for their session. They begin to sing a new Herring/Romero song with the final refrain …There will be peace for me… Within minutes, as they sit on the couch, the studio sounds like angels are present. Their tracks are done quickly, efficiently and without a doubt, inspirationally. Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie and Joey Williams work out their parts and lay their tracks after 4 or 5 takes. Then, elder member, Jimmy Carter is guided to the microphone where in one take he nearly blows the studio walls down with his preacher-vocal overdub on the just finished backing vocal. The finished result is stunning and everyone in the studio feels it as it’s played back. It is a moment that is beyond cheers and applause. There is only wide-eyed silence in the room. It’s the kind of silence that may not answer all of the questions or end on-going debates. But, it does give all who hear pause, as though they are listening into some play-back room in a mansion of heaven. There’s no need for further discussion after this.
As the episode draws to a close, the gap between young and old and all of the questions raised fall to the wayside – to the sound of four blind singers from Alabama who have been performing since 1939 spreading the gospel of peace through music.
And the journey continues for William Pilgrim and the All Grows Up.
All photo credit to Scott Montgomery