Folk shows its love for Pleasants
Musical tribute draws local stars
CAMBRIDGE — Shortly after stepping up to the microphone, nearly every performer peered into the crowd, staring down at the edge of the stage. Some of them winked, others gestured with a hand or mouthed a thank-you. Jonatha Brooke expressed her gratitude quietly, as if it were a private moment.
“I love you, Dick.’’
“I love you, Jonatha,’’ came the faint response from the third row.
That would be Dick Pleasants, the beloved radio host whose 40 years on the local airwaves — first on the Cape, then at WGBH, and now at WUMB, among other stations — were being celebrated at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Seated dead center with a single crutch just in front of him (Pleasants was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2003), he was finally stepping into the spotlight that he’s shone on others for so long.
The show sold out long ago, which was expected given the lineup of folk luminaries Pleasants has championed over the years, from Tom Rush to Lori McKenna. They were both part of the tribute concert, which doubled as a fund-raiser for WUMB to name one of its studios in Pleasants’s honor.
A disabled train on the Red Line kept several folks, including this reporter, from seeing Antje Duvekot’s opening set. But an entire evening of heartfelt performances awaited, starting with Brother Sun, whose three-part harmonies from Greg Greenway, Joe Jencks, and Pat Wictor resonated like those of a barbershop quartet.
McKenna was her usual delightful self, offering sneak previews of her upcoming album, “Lorraine.’’ No matter how much Nashville has courted this singer-songwriter, McKenna remains a proud mother of five from Stoughton. “Buy This Town,’’ a new song, was a poignant valentine to her hometown and the community it inspires.
Ellis Paul surmised he’d probably be a janitor somewhere if Pleasants hadn’t supported his music early on. Backstage during the intermission, Paul said that Pleasants hadn’t requested any particular songs, but many of them seemed to reflect on Pleasants’s legacy. The chorus of Paul’s “Rose Tattoo’’ rang out like a dedication: “If I ever lost you/ I would be lost, too.’’
Brooke was in a nostalgic mood, recalling how she and Jennifer Kimball, her partner in the long-defunct duo the Story, used to listen to Pleasants on the radio and wish they could meet him. Brooke then opened with “The Angel in the House,’’ from the Story’s songbook, before dipping into her recent work based on Woody Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics.
Jonathan Edwards dusted off classics from the ’70s folk-rock canon with a tasteful backing trio, including Taylor Armerding playing masterful mandolin, that enlivened songs such as “Shanty.’’ Meanwhile, Patty Larkin brought some vigor to the proceedings, particularly on “The Book I’m Not Reading’’ as she unleashed a torrent of notes on her acoustic guitar that eventually shifted to Middle Eastern melodies.
Buskin & Batteau, the duo of pianist David Buskin and violinist Robin Batteau, who coordinated the tribute, were also the evening’s court jesters. The more Batteau rambled on, the more Buskin shot him looks of mock disgust. Their set, which was bolstered by Marshal Rosenberg on percussion and included “Lancelot’s Tune (Guinevere),’’ was full of humor and, occasionally, bombast.
All that build-up culminated in the night’s highlight, which just happened to also be the headliner. Rush, wry and sage as ever, debuted a new tune that also marked a milestone for him. The brand-new “Fish Story Song’’ was the first children’s song he’s ever written, which he playfully reminded the audience when the silly lyrics provoked some giggles. Rush reached back to Cambridge’s fabled ’60s folk heyday when he led the entire lineup in a rousing, rafter-rattling singalong of “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm?’’
With everyone still on stage, Kate Taylor materialized as an unannounced guest and led everyone in a final rendition of “Shower the People,’’ written by her brother James. As the performers, with Pleasants among them, swayed and harmonized, it was hard not to agree with what Pleasants had just said in his closing remarks: “I am one lucky man.’’
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.