Clubland: Mike + Ruthy to play the Parlor Room at Signature Sounds in Northampton
Ruthy Ungar, holding Opal, 8 months, and Mike Merenda, holding Willy, 5, are scheduled to perform Saturday in the Parlor Room at Signature Sounds in Northampton.
There’s a long line of musical married couples harmonizing beautifully (Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo and Alan and Mimi from Low are current examples), but Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar began weaving dreamy vocal spells together long before they tied the knot.
Since the late-e_SSRq90s they’ve collaborated on a number of projects, including the hard-touring and popular “subversive stringband” The Mammals, before deciding to focus on their own careers as Mike + Ruthy — two harmonious voices, acoustic instruments like banjo and fiddle, no amplifiers — and life as a married couple with a growing family.
All of which is summed up in their newest release, the six-song “NYC EP.” It’s the city where the two met, the city that never sleeps. The opening track is a rare, once-unfinished Woody Guthrie composition that the couple was invited to complete; it features the lovely intertwining of Mike + Ruthy’s breathy voices — “My New York City is the town where I found you,” they sing together gently — the quiet sound of hearts bonding within the bustle.
Mike + Ruthy will play the Parlor Room at Signature Sounds in Northampton Saturday at 8 p.m.
“The Woody song is one of the highlights of the show,” said Merenda, who says he feels lucky to have had the opportunity to add their ideas to one of Guthrie’s works.
Guthrie didn’t write down music, but these particular lyrics had part of a melody handwritten on a piece of staff paper by his wife, Marjorie. Woody’s daughter Nora, who oversees the Woody Guthrie Foundation and got the ball rolling on what became the popular Mermaid Avenue albums, invited Mike + Ruthy to finish the song.
“It took on a life of its own,” Merenda said.
At first, reading the lyrics on the page, “It didn’t seem very hard-hitting or sophisticated,” he said. “We wondered, ‘Maybe this one’s a dud, a sweet love song,’ but it’s very layered.”
The song’s context is important, he added. “It was written six months after his young daughter tragically died. It’s not just a love song to a romantic partner; it transcends that.”
The beauty and power of Guthrie’s uncomplicated lyrics, written in 1947, slowly revealed themselves.
“His genius shines through simplicity, using language that everybody can understand,” Merenda said.
Ungar alone sings the verses, which include the lines, “I see your face there shining where the kids play in the streets / and a billion, jillion windows that are New York town to me.”
Merenda said that while Ungar was first trying to record her vocal for the song, she was “in tears by the third verse. The emotion is very thick.”
Last winter, while the two were filming the video for “My New York City” with director Tom Schnaidt, they went to Coney Island looking for Guthrie’s address, which was printed on the lyric sheet. His house was long gone, replaced by condos.
But they encountered Richard Martinez, a senior citizen who noticed they were carrying instruments — props for the video shoot, really; the guitar was even missing a string — and he asked where they were playing. “How about right here?” the singers said, and ran through the traditional tune “Red Rocking Chair.” “You play beautiful, you two! Bravo!” Martinez said, clapping as sporadic cars sailed by. “Do you know ‘La Bamba’?” And they did, so the impromptu threesome gave it a whirl on a windy day.
“The spirit of Woody was there,” Merenda said. “Playing ‘La Bamba’ on the sidewalk on Mermaid Avenue in February with a complete stranger.”
Other songs on “The NYC EP” include the galloping audience favorite “On My Way Home,” which has a manic banjo-powered energy a la “Fall On My Knees” from their Mammals days (this writer was a sometime member of that band), and Ungar lilts and wails with blues power on the tracks “Romance In the Dark” and “Oh Mama.” That last tune swaggers as Ungar soulfully belts lyrics like, “I don’t know what’s come over me / Oh mama, I’m still learning who to be” — and the song takes on fun new meaning when it’s revealed it was actually inspired by their son Will, then 1 year old, not wanting to take a nap — all he could verbalize was “Oh, Mama!” Willy’s actions inspired the lyrics, which Ungar wrote and hummed on their country walk as she wheeled the ever-drowsier toddler home in his stroller. By the time they got to the door, Willy was sleeping and the song was finished.
Mike + Ruthy have since had a second child, Opal, now 8 months old.
“She pretty much rides on Ruthy’s back for the show,” Merenda said. “She falls asleep within a song or two.” And Merenda calls Willy, now 5, “an old pro at this point. He has his own backpack and suitcase and he comes in and asks ‘Where’s the green room?’ ”
For Mike + Ruthy, keeping the family together and bringing their children along to gigs is something that’s in their blood: On the wall at their home is a photo of Ruthy, taken when she was 3. As her parents Jay Ungar and Lyn Hardy perform on an outdoor stage, Ruthy is plopped down happily in the corner with her own fiddle, as cows graze in the background.