The human family is going through a transition right now, especially in America. Pendulums are swinging one to the liberal side, I think. People want to have peace, but now know that it’ll take some work because we have a long way to go. We look for guidance in the past and traditions and we look to the future. So are the Chapin family. So, probably, is your family. All of this was on display at the Chapin Family Reunion concert at Arlo Guthrie’s old stomping grounds — the church where Alice’s trash was removed. Now called The Guthrie Center, it serves meals to people every week and does lots of things for the community around it. It also could use a new roof soon, I guess, so it’s just like home.
When I was a kid, my family always had Family Reunions — usually once a year — at our house, with lots of family and friends who were like family. Because we often only saw each other once a year, you’d be amazed by how much individuals have changed since the last time you saw them. Some had switched careers, some had retired, and there were some who, of course, had died and been born between reunions. There were marriages and babies and lots of stories to tell about those changes. This also has happened in The Chapin Family.
For those not familiar with it, The Chapin Family in question is the family of the late folk-singer Harry Chapin. Friday night’s show featured one of Harry’s brothers, Tom; two of Harry’s nieces, Abigail and Lily (daughters of Tom, and aka The Chapin Sisters); and Harry’s daughter, Jen. Jen is married now and brought her husband (extraordinary bassist/band member/father to her two boys) Stefan Crump. Tom brought along two old friends, Michael Mark and Doug Mishkin and The Jen Chapin Trio was rounded out by Jamie Fox (though not, as Jen pointed out, the comedian Jamie Foxx (who was born something else))This Jamie Fox is a virtuoso guitarist. Beside this, there was the death of family friends Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert in the last year, and musical letters home from family friend Bruce Springsteen, all taken note of during the show.
The show, like all of Pete’s shows and many of Harry’s had an intimate, living room feel to it. This is, of course, appropriate, since Harry had an album named “Living Room Suite” and the room was only slightly larger than a communal living room, and we were sitting with other members of the family. Jen would sit on the steps between tunes by the others and they would do the same. The “backstage” area where I had interviewed Jen earlier was actually upstairs and designed with the feel of a living room with old couches and so on. So, we settled in for the reunion in the 100 seat room…
Tom, looking nearly all of his 70 years old, talked and sang and taught music like Pete had, and sang two songs about looking back at life, then — because he’s Tom and it’s his particular skill — he led us through a children’s song, recently published as a book, “Backwards Birthday Party” (Chorus: “Party Day Birth Words Back”) to celebrate the silliness that family can be. This was followed by Tom singing as the opposite of The Man Who Knows How To Talk To Kids — the man in Harry and Sandy’s “Cat’s In The Cradle”. Tom’s version ended with him singing “It..Ohhhh… I…” without getting any words out, much like the man he was portraying — the man with so little practice talking to his son, that he no longer can.
The Chapin Sisters came up next, borrowing Tom’s bass player, Michael Mark. One of the Sisters began by talking about Harry and a song she knew, “Remember When The Music” which had suddenly “clicked” with her after spending time celebrating Pete Seeger’s life in NY recently at the Climate Change march. She had connected her family with the larger Chapin family, her singing with activists of the past, and finally the music of the individual singer with the larger world’s needs. As they sang the song, Michael Mark’s face was aglow with joy. The tone was set. The Sisters sang songs like they were from the Smokey Mountains. The Banjo, mixed with the voices sounded like Dolly Parton and Emmy Lou Harris and I was transported to my college days with any number of Blugrass bands, clogging dancers and more than a few beers — natural music in a home-like setting. They followed this with the pure voices of the two-part Everly Brothers harmonies after singing the bluegrass piece and followed with a connection between the southern Everlys and yankee New York City — Carole King’s “Crying In The Rain” as done by the Everly boys. They did a new song of their own “My Boyfriend’s Leaving” and traded places with their cousin Jen and her band, The Jen Chapin Trio.
Jen and band also did songs that connected generations. First, she was the mother passing down real-life wisdom to her real-life son in “Find Your Joy and Let It Show”, then she did her father’s song “Flowers Are Red”, and then a song from Reckoning (her latest album) whose chorus is “Feel Guilty? Not Really” about seeking quiet with children underfoot. As a parent myself, I remember the days of hustle, chaos, and love that went with young children. Jen nailed it. Finally, she and the band did “Tangled Up Puppet” with words from her mom and music/rhythm by her father, about teenage girls growing up just when you get used to having them as children. Stephan used the bow on the bass, and Jamie managed to get dobro sounds out of an electric guitar, all highlighting the beauty and poignancy of the moment in song.
There was a break for coffee in my case, beer for others and it felt like coffee hour at church, with folks talking with the performers and connecting over new wares. There was a raffle to help support the Guthrie Center announced and the prizes will be tickets to Carnegie Hall to see (yes, we’re all getting old) Arlo perform the 50th anniversary of the song Alice’s Restaurant or Stockbridge Police shirts. I bought one and went back to the show.
Jen Chapin opened up the second half with a song by erstwhile “family member” Bruce Springsteen called “41 Shots” about Black Americans being pulled over by the police and the possible consequences of that. The song is on Jen’s “Light of Mine” album and once again proves Mr. Springsteen’s insight into actual American lives. (For those of you who don’t know it, Bruce sang “Remember When The Music” at Harry’s Gold Medal Remembrance and Tom sang his “Your Home Town” during the night’s pre-show sound check, so Springsteen obviously shares a connection with the Chapins). Jen and band performed “NYC” and Stephan played incredible stand-up bass, evoking the cacophony and rhythm that is The City. I have incredible respect for the not-famous-but-incredibly talented musicians out there and Jamie did not disappoint, displaying the musicianship that was demanded by the various Chapins over time. Harry and Steve and Tom’s arrangements had always required musicianship and Jen and Tom and the Sisters continued that tradition tonight. Jen finished her set by inviting the Sisters up to do “Passive People” and they returned the favor by asking her to do back-up on “Sweet Love In the Air”.
There was more talk about Pete and the late Ronnie Gilbert when the Sisters started again — they performed the Weavers’ “True Love’s Mourning Cry”, followed by “So Long, Angelina” with their father. They spoke of love and Michael Mark announced that the next night was his anniversary and his wife was there to see him.Tom sang “Love Last Long” with him.
As is normal for a living room get-together, guests from out of town show up. Tom introduced with his friend who happened to be in the area, Doug MIshkin, and they sang a long-lost Pete song with a chorus in Spanish, “Mi Amor, Mi Corazon” (“My love, my heart” if I translate it right).
From romantic love to Christian love were treated to something I had never heard before but have been curious about for years: Harry’s musical production of a Southern re-telling of the gospels, “Cotton Patch Gospel” by Clarence Jordan. The song was called “Jubilation” and it featured the whole crew. Introduced by Michael Mark, Mr. Mark’s face shone as he sang this song that he performed the first time just after Harry’s death. (Jen has recently put out a song called “Gospel” herself about hope in the midst of struggle, by the way.)
The final connection to the elders — Pete Seeger, Toshi his wife, and Ronnie Gilbert — was made by the Sisters who introduced a song from the Climate Change march in New York earlier this year called “We Will Not Stop Singing”. As the group finished up the song singing the wordless chorus, “oo, oo”, I swear I felt the Holy Spirit float through the room in just those harmonious notes. Then, just as quickly, it was gone.
For the finale, that activist-connecting-family-spirit that one often felt at concerts by any of these people, was felt here as the entire group sang about Harry’s greatest cause: hunger. The song was “There’s Food Enough On Our Green, Growing Earth” and Michael played what I would call “Pan Flute”. We, the family of humanity such as we were, had joined the Chapin Family for this reunion as we sang in unison and unity. While we were in that mental/spiritual/musical space, the concert finished with “Circle” and we went triumphantly into the night.
Family Reunions are great things when people care about each other, when we remember those who have left us and those who couldn’t be there, due to changing life circumstances within the family. At the same time, there is joy to be had by those who are lucky enough to attend as they celebrate love and friendship also due to changing life circumstances that bring people home. There was a second night of the Chapin Family Reunion Concert, but I couldn’t tell you who was there, because of life’s calling. I have no doubt, though, that whoever was there — in the audience or on stage — had a great time because of all the love that The Chapin Family shares within itself and outside of itself.
These things happen every once in a while. If you get a chance, you should go.
P.S., as usual, I make no money from this review. I just write about what I like. (Look forward to my interview with Jen Chapin soon.)
or more information on any of these performers or the Center, check out their links:
Tom Chapin www.tomchapin.com
Tom Chapin & Michael Mark — Combing Through the Wreckage, and Songs of Generations/ Pass the Music On , Backward Birthday Party, Cat’s in the Cradle
Chapin Sisters w/ Michael Mark– Remember When the Music, If I Could Only Win Your Love, Crying In The Rain, My Boyfriend’s Leaving,
Jen Chapin, Stefan Krumpt and Jamie Fox — Find Your Joy and Let It Show, Flowers Are Red, “Guilty? Not Really” Tangled Up Puppet
Jen Chapin, Stefan Crump and Jamie Fox — 41 Shots (by Bruce Springsteen), NYC, (with the Chapin Sisters) Passive People.
Chapin Sisters — Sweet Love In the Air, (with Tom Chapin) So Long, Angelina,
Tom Chapin — Love Lasts Long, (with Doug Mishkin), Mi Amor, Mi Corazon
All Players — “Jubilation” from “Cotton Patch Gospel”, We Will Not Stop Singing, There’s Food Enough, In Our Green and Growing Home, Circle