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Young@Heart chorus of Northampton celebrates 30th anniversary with new album, concerts and photo exhibit

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE YOUNG@HEART CHORUS<br/>The Young@Heart Chorus in 1982
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Patricia Cady of the Young @ Heart chorus congratulates  fellow chorus members as they listen to their new album together for the first time .
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Members of the  "Youn @Heart" chorus gathered recently at Sonelab Studios in Easthampton to listen to their new CD.<br/>

In 1982, Ronald Reagan was president, a gallon of gas cost about $1.30, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts had a huge hit with “I Love Rock and Roll” — and a group of elderly residents began meeting for sing-alongs in Northampton.

Thirty years later, the Young@Heart Chorus has become an area institution, the subject of an acclaimed documentary and an international draw as well, playing sold-out shows from Europe to Japan to Australia. To celebrate those achievements, Young@Heart is rolling out a full slate of presentations next month: a brand-new album, three local shows and an exhibit of photos and memorabilia.

The three shows — at Northampton’s Academy of Music on Oct. 19, 20 and 21 — will give the group a chance to showcase the tracks from their new album, “Now,” most of which was recorded this summer in Sonelab Studio in Easthampton. The CD includes an eclectic mix of rock, soul, blues, pop and country/folk, as the chorus works its way through a playlist that includes songs by the Talking Heads, Nick Lowe, John Prine, Mose Allison and many others.

Hosmer Gallery at the Forbes Library in Northampton will feature an exhibit through October of photos, banners, posters, videos and other items from the Young@Heart archives, with an opening reception Oct. 12 from 5 to 8 p.m. to coincide with Arts Night Out.

Longtime chorus director Bob Cilman is particularly excited about “Now,” saying the album, which goes on sale Oct. 1, was a joy to make and captured the vitality of the chorus’s live shows with studio polish, courtesy of veteran sound engineer Mark Miller.

“We sold out all our CDs on our tour,” Cilman said in an interview last week, shortly after he and the chorus had returned from a seven-show tour in Japan. “I think it was about 300 copies, so we’re off to a good start.”

The album, funded in part through a Kickstarter campaign and grants from organizations like the Massachusetts Cultural Council, was recorded in Sonelab in June and co-produced by Cilman and Ken Maiuri, Young@Heart’s keyboard player. The album features many of the songs Young@Heart debuted earlier this year as part of its new concert, “This is Getting Old.”

High spirits

The group and band members were in high spirits when they gathered in early July in the lounge area of Sonelab to listen to a playback of the CD before its final mixing. The vocals were clear, the band lean and tight as Y@H member Andy Walsh took the lead vocal — half-spoken, half-shouted rap — on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.”

“Yeah, Andy!” several people called out after the song ended. Other chorus members applauded as Walsh, with a quick smile, took a modest bow.

David Scott, lead vocalist on John Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me,” also got a round of applause after the playback of his song. Gentle laughter rippled around the room at the song’s conclusion, on which Maiuri briefly segues into the bluesy piano riff that opens the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” and Scott sings a snatch of the first lyric before the cut abruptly ends.

“Thank you, Paul,” someone said in a mock-Liverpool accent.

Cilman stood to one side, his face alternately serious and then creasing into a smile as he listened to the songs. “You really need to hear yourselves, hear what you’ve done,” he said as he coaxed a few members, standing in a hallway outside the studio, to come into the lounge area.

But then came a more poignant moment, as the strains of the Flaming Lips’ “All We Have Is Now” began. Former member Louise Canady, who sang on the tune, died shortly after the chorus recorded the song in June.

“I know we’re all thinking of Louise,” Cilman said as a few members cried briefly. “We all miss her and wish she could be with us right now.”

Indeed, the final line of the song’s chorus — “All we’ll ever have is now” — seemed to offer a meditation on aging and mortality. It’s a theme that has long been a backdrop to Young@Heart, which Cilman says has had over 130 members over the years. Many have passed away.

Wide appeal

That said, the album’s overall spirit is anything but down. Its appeal lies in the variety of songs and the arrangements, like the way the chorus brackets Walsh’s lines in “I Put a Spell on You” with exuberant “whoos” and “ooohs.” Then there’s the call and response on Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” with the chorus answering lead vocalist Gordon Tripp each time as he sings that line.

Over 15 chorus members take a turn at lead singing on the 17-song CD, which also features two live cuts recorded last fall at shows in Northampton and Washington, D.C., including a rousing version of the classic garage rock standard “Dirty Water.” Among a number of strong efforts, Fred Rinehart particularly shines on the driving R&B number “Give Me One More Chance” and “Must Have Got Lost” by the J. Geils Band.

Some of the quieter songs highlight the chorus’s female singers, like Helen Boston, who handles the lead on “Angel of Montgomery,” the John Prine song about the life of an older woman that Bonnie Raitt turned into one of her biggest hits. And Rollie Edmond sings Jackson Browne’s contemplative “These Days,” a song that examines themes of love, loss and regret.

The chorus’s veteran band, with support from additional musicians on some tracks, provides solid backing throughout, and there are any number of bright instrumental moments: Tom Mahnken’s gritty saxophone on “I Put a Spell on You”; Cilman’s harmonica solo on Neil Young’s “Long May You Run”; F. Alex Johnson’s cascading guitar riff on “These Days”; and Maiuri’s rolling piano chords on “Nobody Told Me.”

Young@Heart even goes bilingual on the album, as Ron Kolinko — a retired pianist and church organist — does a bang-up job as lead singer on “Les Trois Petits Cochons” (“The Three Little Pigs”), a musical version, by French-Canadian singer/actor Dan Bigras, of the famous children’s story.

Upcoming concerts

The chorus’s upcoming shows at the Academy of Music won’t just be dedicated to the newer songs: Cilman says the group will showcase “some old chestnuts” from its repertoire to recognize its 30 years of performing. In fact, the title of the show is “Now and Then.”

It’s a legacy that members take great pride in, even when they sometimes find it hard to grasp how far they’ve come over the years. Lynn Petrides of Amherst, Young@Heart’s longest-tenured member — she’s been with the group since 1986 — said in a Gazette interview earlier this year that she never would have envisioned things like overseas tours when she joined.

“I was a kid back then at 60, and Bob was a child,” said Petrides, who’s 86 today. “I don’t know anyone that could have imagined what it would grow into. I mean, who ever heard of old people singing rock and roll?”

We’ve heard of them now.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Tickets cost $20, or $60 for premium seating and a copy of the CD. For the Oct. 19 show only, $100 provides premium seating, a copy of the CD and admission to an after-concert reception for the chorus and band. To reserve, call the Academy of Music box office at 584-9032, ext. 105, or visit www.academyofmusictheatre.com. The Oct. 19-20 shows are at 8 p.m., and the Oct. 21 show begins at 2 p.m.

The Hosmer Gallery Young@Heart exhibit, curated by Stella Cilman, daughter of Bob Cilman, will run Oct. 5-31 and is free. The gallery is located at 20 West St., Northampton. For information about the exhibit, call 587-1011.

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