Live music is the charm: Young@Heart Chorus returns to the stage, and musicians rally in Ashfield for a Ukraine benefit concert

  • Shirley Stevens rehearses with the Young@Heart Chorus for an April 30 show at Northampton’s Academy Of Music — the group’s first live show since December 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Martin, at left in chair, and Lu Cauley, at microphone, at a recent rehearsal of the Young@Heart Chorus at Gateway City Arts. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Martin, at left in chair, and Lu Cauley, at microphone, at a recent rehearsal of the Young@Heart Chorus at Gateway City Arts. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Lockhart gives it her all at a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal, while Bob Cilman directs at left. The group performs April 30 at the Academy Of Music, its first live show since December 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hit it, boys! From left, David Fersh, Jerry Little, and Bill Shepard sing The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” in a new video by the Young@Heart Chorus. Image courtesy Bob Cilmam

  • Veteran musicians Mitch Chakour, from left, Peter J. Newland, and Peter H. Bloom will join with other players to stage a benefit concert for Ukraine on May 1 in Ashfield. CONTRIBUTED/REBECCA DELAMOTTE

Staff Writer
Published: 4/22/2022 8:46:48 AM
Modified: 4/22/2022 8:45:32 AM

After COVID-19 arrived in early 2020, the Young@Heart Chorus, like so many other musical groups, had to make do with online rehearsals and performances for well over a year. Then, when the pandemic seemed to ease last summer, the elderly singers prepared to return to the stage in October — until the delta variant sent them back to Zoom-based practice.

But after five online shows, Y@H is finally ready to perform live again — and knock on wood, they’ll be at Northampton’s Academy of Music on Saturday, April 30, for their first in-person show since December 2019. It’s an important moment for the group because this year is also Y@H’s 40th anniversary.

The April 30 show, at 7:30 p.m., is just one of a number of concerts taking place in the region that weekend. A very topical performance, for instance, will be held May 1 at Ashfield Community Hall as a number of veteran area musicians play a mix of blues, rock and more to raise money for Ukraine relief.

Bob Cilman, the founder and longtime  director of Young@Heart, says the group began meeting again for in-person rehearsals last summer at Look Park. The rise of the delta variant put an end to those sessions, he noted, but members began in-person rehearsals again in February, first at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke and then also at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence.

It’s been a challenge, he said, from the singers being masked during the sessions — soloists take off their masks when they sing — to simply trying to sing together after nearly two years of being separated.

“It’s been wonderful to see everyone again,” Cilman said during a recent phone call. “But we hadn’t sung as a group in quite a while. Their voices were very soft at first … I was thinking, ‘What is that? Where did everybody go?’”

He noted that the chorus also has seven singers who are 90 years old and up, the most ever in the group’s history. And since everyone has mostly been singing masked, he said, “We don’t know yet how we’ll sound.”

But members have been rehearsing diligently, Cilman said, while keeping an eye on safety protocols; the singers stand further apart than they did pre-pandemic, for instance. A few members came down with COVID in the past couple years but have recovered.

The group, working closely with its top-notch band, has also used the past two years to develop a broad new repertoire of songs, some of which will get their first full live airing April 30.

“One advantage of doing this online has been that [the band] can take all the parts we’ve recorded separately and mix them and balance them just so,” Cilman said. “We have a lot of new stuff. Coming back and doing that live is a challenge, but we’re getting there.”

Young@Heart recently released videos for two of those tunes, The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and “Short Skirt” by Cake, and the chorus plans to play both those cuts at next week’s show. Also on the playlist will be music by The Pretenders, Bonnie Raitt, Talking Heads, Norah Jones and more.

Another tune in the works is a Slovakian song contributed by member Steve Martin, who has family from a part of that country about 30 miles from the Ukrainian border. Martin has been a trooper, Cilman noted: At a recent rehearsal at Gateway City Arts in the center’s Divine Theater, he was singing from a wheelchair, having just returned to rehearse after recuperating from back problems.

“We’re happy to do something” in support of Ukraine, said Cilman, who added that everyone will be tested for COVID before next week’s rehearsals and the concert, as the singers will finally take off their face masks. “And we’re happy to be back together again.”

For more information and to purchase tickets for the Academy show, visit youngatheartchorus.com or aomtheatre.com.

Singing for Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has infuriated and horrified people around the world, including veteran musicians and friends Peter J. Newland and Peter H. Bloom. Newland is a longtime Valley guitarist, keyboard player and singer who was a key member of the western Mass. band FAT of the 1970s that toured with groups such as The Allman Brothers. Bloom is a nationally touring flute player whose music embraces jazz, classical, blues and more.

The two had played some past benefit concerts with the late Charles Neville, the acclaimed saxophonist, and they decided they needed to come together for a concert for Ukraine, too.

Newland also invited guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Mitch Chakour of Amherst, who’s played with a Who’s Who of artists including Joe Cocker, Howling Wolf and the J. Geils Band, and veteran bass player Guy DeVito of Shutesbury (another former member of FAT), to join the May 1 benefit show in Ashfield.

Rounding out the gig will be a backup band of Ralph Whittle on keyboards, Mark Pappas on guitar, and Tim Smith on drums. The show, which begins at 6 p.m. at Ashfield Community Hall (formerly The Grange Hall), will include what organizers call an “uplifting evening of rock, blues, R&B, jazz standards, bebop, ballads and more.”

Concert proceeds will benefit the nonprofit group World Central Kitchen, which is providing millions of meals for Ukrainians in their own country and in nearby refugee centers in Poland, Hungary and other nations.

“The crisis in Ukraine is tragic and heartbreaking,” Newland said in a statement. “All of us — musicians and audiences alike — have been asking ‘How can we help?’ This concert is a chance to stand in solidarity with Ukraine, to share joyful music and send tangible support to the important work of World Central Kitchen.”

According to Americas Musicworks, a Somerville communications company assisting with the concert, Newland and his band will open the May 1 show, followed by sets by Mitch Chakour and then Bloom and his band. The closing set will feature all of the musicians, with Newland, Chakour and Bloom trading solos and backing each other up on a range of tunes.

Tickets are $20 at the door and can also be purchased in advance at Ashfield Hardware and Supply, 343 Main St. For additional information, call either (413) 372-3989 or (413) 325-4549.

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


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