The Sweet Remains — Music that ‘Moves Through People’ — at The Kate

Excerpted from "Music Fills The Spaces" by The Sweet Remains (2/1/19)


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The Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote in his 1984 poem Station Island:

“We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.”

Last week at The Kate in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the three songwriters of the folk-rock band The Sweet Remains brought Heaney’s image to mind: how music moves through people. How a song — as much visceral as aural — is internalized.  How its voicings, gestures, instrumentation, chords shift us inside and out, leaving new spaces in our hearts and new lines on our palms. As songwriter Paul Simon succinctly says, “All the music’s seeping through.”

At the Kate show, The Sweet Remains navigated us savvily through their hearts, lines, and musical “seepings.” The program opened with the trio of songwriters  — Greg Naughton, Rich Price, and Brian Chartrand— paying homage to musicians like Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys in choreographing themselves around an old-fashioned radio-style microphone. As “Howling Wolf” by Brian Chartrand unfolded — a beautiful, deceptively-simple song about losing and finding one’s way, in relationship, in life, in nature — Price’s and Chartrand’s guitar work was finger-picked, breathlessly spare, as much about silence as strum. Chartrand’s writing had subtle hints of Paul Simon’s and Neil Young’s lyric-logic and phrasing, and Naughton hung high tones ala Motown with a xylophone. “Howling Wolf” is full of emotional gems. But what was really center-stage, and poured out over The Kate’s auditorium, was a heavenly tri-blend of voices, a smooth marriage of men’s voices — so lush you could blush. It said: settle in, you’ve arrived in the land of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

To bring this home, Price, Naughton, and Chartrand gathered again around the microphone near the start of the second set. They introduced a song without giving a title, mysterious and impromptu: “We are going to give this one a go.” “This one” was Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” sung with a sort of swashbuckling reverence — how else do you take on CSN? — and this moment of collective American music consciousness was re-lived by the audience like a memory:

Flashback: it is Monday August 18th, 1969, and we are all crouched uncomfortably between puddles and mud on Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel, New York., trying to stay dry during a break in the downpour. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash (with Neil Young sitting out) stand clustered on the Woodstock stage, in the darkest moment of the night —3:30AM, just before dawn. They are singing together in public for only the second time. “Helplessly Hoping” is built on three alliterative scenes of emotional turmoil — “Helplessly hoping, her harlequin hovers nearby….He runs, wishing he could fly” — within a melody that ascends step by step. What’s lovable here in this historical moment is that the harmonies aren’t perfect — there’s a bit of roughness to the vocal blend and we hear the edges. The song is so new, it’s still finding its wings.

Back at the Kate, the band later paid tribute to another trio configuration of songwriters — in a version of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” What’s immediately notable about The Sweet Remains’ take on this song, sung by Naughton, is the deeply rhythm-and-blues-inflected lead vocal line. The song is slowed to almost a standstill, and Naughton leans into that extra space with melismatic flourishes and super-smooth bent notes. The song rolls and grooves with synthesizer touches, recalling late Motown and Stevie Wonder. In fact, the original Beatles song owes its life an African American rock and roll ancestor. “Come Together” by John Lennon is a retooling of a Chuck Berry song, with its motor slowed way down:

Flashback: in a staged performance introduced by 1950s Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, Chuck Berry stands alone centerstage, his suit cutting a razor-sharp line. His guitar astraddle, he bends his lean angular shape down towards the guitar with a dancer’s slow motion. He comes up with the opening guitar riffs. Berry then performs an entire song-and-dance tableau, a vision of a miraculous flying vehicle, one he can drive on the roads of white-supremacist America, but one that can fly away; he can escape New Jersey flat-tops and the menacing sirens of state patrols. “So I let out my wings and I blow my horn; bye-bye New Jersey, I become airborne.”

There’s a saying (credited to Pablo Picasso) that “good artists borrow, but the best artists steal.”

From whom? Is a key question. Chuck Berry and The Beatles settled Lennon’s song-snatch out of court, with Berry winning financial restitution.

But this also happens: artists digest, internalize their influences so much that they birth them back out in new forms. And this is what The Sweet Remains’s songwriters seem to embrace, an irresistible, inevitable process, and one that is shared with their audiences. Many of us have been imbued with some of the most deeply-affecting songwriters in English and American history. Often buried in that record is a primary legacy of African American folk, rock, gospel and R&B history — of which we are all, of every color — students.  

You can have fun tracing The Sweet Remains’ influences in any number of directions, and back as far as you dare to go. Naughton, Price, and Chartrand opened their second set with Chartrand’s “Printemps A Paris,” evoking other precedents — a French (perhaps French-Canadian, in the vein of the indomitable and under-recognized McGarrigle Sisters) folk song tradition. The harmonizing also evoked late 19th-century and early 20th century barbershop quartet tradition, another African American sourcing, to whom CSN owes a deep debt as well. This sweet, funny song was interactive, the audience invited to sing along in call and response.

“Music Fills the Spaces,” a stirring anthem by Price, fittingly closed the show.  The song is like a grand summation; it picks up Chuck Berry and other musicians’ bittersweet, fraught romance with the road. It images music’s effect to fill, to move, to assuage. Price sings, “I think this music in my soul, Will be the last thing that you hear, As I go on, Birmingham to Boston, Driving all night long.” Music is “filling the spaces in between our broken hearts.” The song later morphs for a moment into Simon’s “Late in the Evening” — it was now 10:00 or so on July 22, 2023 — and in a sweet synthesis of old and new songs, all the music was seeping through.