No stopping these singers: Young@Heart Chorus prepares to debut new album and virtual concert

  • The Young@Heart Chorus can’t perform live at the moment, but the group has a new album out and a virtual concert on tap. PHOTO BY JULIAN PARKER-BURNS/COURTESY Y@H CHORUS

  • The elderly singers have been rehearsing and via Zoom since March and will stage an album-release virtual performance Oct. 3.  COURTESY OF Y@H CHORUS

  • The Y@H Chorus performs last fall at Northampton’s Academy of Music. Chorus director Bob Cilman, seen in jacket and tie in left center, says the group has been very productive in the last several months even if forced to rehearse remotely. PHOTO BY JULIAN PARKER-BURNS/COURTESY Y@H CHORUS

  • The new album by the Young@Heart Chorus consists mostly of live tracks, including some recorded in Belgium.

  • The elderly singers have been rehearsing and via Zoom since March and will stage an album-release virtual performance Oct. 3.  COURTESY OF Y@H CHORUS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2020 10:51:58 AM

It’s been a tough stretch for members of the Young@Heart Chorus, like musicians everywhere, with the pandemic shutting down a string of concerts this spring and summer — and now in fall.

But the Valley’s elderly singing group has hardly been idle. Since late March, members have been rehearsing with their crack band via Zoom — and now they’re poised to stage a virtual concert that will be introduced by some national showbiz names and can be viewed around the world.

Oh, and the group is also debuting a new album, a live disc that shows just what all the excitement is about.

“Miss You,” recorded mostly during 2018-2019, features live versions of 16 Y@H songs, ranging from pop to R&B to soul to funk, with several tunes taken from their concerts in recent years, as well as some older numbers. The album, named for the group’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ song of the same name, was recorded and mixed by Young@Heart’s technical director, Dan Richardson.

It’s a great-sounding album, with an excellent balance struck between the singers and the band members on guitar, keyboards, bass, saxophone, drums/percussion, and harmonica (the last played by Bob Cilman, the longtime Y@H director). In a recent phone call, Cilman praised the singers, Richardson’s work on the recording — “I am amazed at the way Dan captured our shows” — and the band’s tight musicianship.

“The band has really given its all, especially in the last several months,” said Cilman, referring to the virtual rehearsals Y@H has been involved in. “We’ve asked them to do a lot more than we have in the past — make recordings in their studios, create backing tracks — and they’ve really stepped up.”

“Miss You” arrives Friday, Oct. 2, and the virtual show of that same name takes place Saturday, Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. The show is being staged as a fundraiser. Cilman says the chorus has lost about $100,000 this year through the cancellation of live concerts and the goal is to make up that lost revenue with the Oct. 3 concert (as of Sept. 17 more than $30,000 had already been raised).

The album offers any number of highlights, such as the strong singing and harmonies of Steve Martin and Bill Shepard (combined age: 173) on “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” by Pearl Jam; “I Still Got It,” a soul number by Lee Fields, sung in this case by Lee Wilson; and “Watching the River Flow,” with a spirited vocal by late Y@H member Arthur Klein. It’s an old Bob Dylan song, a blues-rock tune that features prominent piano and electric guitar.

“Miss You” also features contributions by some past Y@H collaborators, such as the Chicago Children’s Choir (they join lead vocalist John Rinehart on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”) and members of the PrisonVision Project, in which chorus members have sung with men and women from two regional correctional facilities.

“We wanted to present the album like a live show, with an opening set, an intermission, and then a second set and encore,” said Cilman, who notes that Young@Heart’s last album, “Heaven,” came out eight years ago. “We had a lot of material to choose from, so there were some tough choices to make. And we wanted the songs to flow together, and have the spirit of the live shows come through, and I think we’ve done that.”

Remote recording

“Miss You” has a 17th song, an “intermission” tune that reflects the remote work the chorus and band have been doing since March. It’s a fitting song for the COVID-19 era: “Splendid Isolation” by Warren Zevon, which the band and chorus members learned and recorded using cell phones, Cilman says.

“It’s amazing the sound quality you can get from phones today,” he said.

The creation of “Splendid Isolation” also reflects what Cilman calls “this period when we’ve never been more productive. We’ve learned more music than we ever have.” With everyone largely confined at home by the virus, he noted, chorus and band members have been “really focused in rehearsals. We all look forward to having time together and something to work on.”

The chorus went to virtual rehearsals in late March — the group’s last live practice was March 9 — and after some initial glitches getting members set up on Zoom, the sessions have flowed more smoothly, Cilman said.

Not that there still aren’t technical problems to overcome on a regular basis, he adds, given the vagaries of internet service from one location to another. To try to minimize potential problems, band members have prepared some backing tracks that can be used for the Oct. 3 concert. “We’re not looking to be perfect,” said Cilman. “There may be glitches” during the show.

The concert will also feature guest appearances and introductions to some songs by David Byrne, Edie Falco, Paul Shaffer and members of Los Lobos, to name a few people. Cilman explains that he worked with a couple of contacts in the music business to reach out to celebrities who might appear in the show. Some had previous connections to the group; Byrne, founder of Talking Heads, sang with Y@H at a 2007 show in New York City when Y@H performed the Talking Heads’ “Heaven.”

Cilman says these inquiries yielded some surprising links. It turned out that Falco, the actress best known for her key role in “The Sopranos,” was a big fan of Y@H. “Who knew?” Cilman said with a laugh.

And Shaffer, the longtime band leader of “The David Letterman Show,” had been a fan of the late Warren Zevon, who’d he’d gotten to know when Zevon was a guest on Letterman’s show, and when the singer-songwriter occasionally filled in for him (Shaffer) on the show. “Paul heard our recording of ‘Splendid Isolation’ and liked it, so he signed on for our show,” said Cilman.

The Oct. 3 concert will feature a number of new songs, including one by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and another by Billy Ray Cyrus, and there will also be some music videos (you can see a sample of one in the trailer for the concert, in which band members dance around on Zoom to the beat of The Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road”). The show can be seen via the Y@H website and on Facebook and YouTube.

Cilman’s hope is that Y@H, which has built up a worldwide following over the years through tours in Europe, New Zealand, Japan and other countries, can also draw on far-flung fans on Oct. 3. The chorus performed a Zoom version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” earlier this spring during a rehearsal, drawing over 100,000 views between the group’s Facebook page and on YouTube, Cilman noted.

“This is where we’re at today, and I hope people join us,” he said.

The Oct. 3 show is free, though donations are encouraged. Paying ticket options come with various perks, such as a digital download of the new album and a pass to a virtual “backstage party.” Anyone registering for the show will be sent an email linking them to it shortly beforehand. Full details can be found at youngatheartchorus.com.

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




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