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Squonk Opera | A.J. Croce | Aaron Neville | Mike Farris

Pawleys Festival of Music and Art opens 25th season

By Carrie Humphreys
For the Observer

Heralding the 25th anniversary of the Pawleys Island Festival of Music and Art! It’s not difficult to find a “silver-lining” in the 2015 performance schedule.

Founded by the late Lee Minton, a retired ophthalmologist with homes on Pawleys Island and in London, the festival goal was to provide the community with a noteworthy cultural experience and cultivate young talent.

“We wanted this year to be really spectacular,” said Delores Blount, the festival executive director. “In addition to our best lineup ever, with three Grammy Award winners, we will directly reach and impact over 3,000 students in Georgetown County, as many of the performers conduct musical workshops in our local schools.”

Among the highlights, all slated under a tent at the Reserve Golf Club, are the return of two performers, Steve Tyrell and Ken Lavigne, both smash hits in prior visits. Others to tempt the musical appetite are singer/pianist A.J. Croce, legenday doo-wopper Aaron Neville, Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue, the jazzy Natalie Douglas, Davis and Johnson and the Fabulous Equinox Orchestra, and for the finale “So Good for the Soul: A Tribute to Motown.”

The festival kicks off Friday in Downtown Georgetown with the third annual Seaside Palette where local artists will paint “en plein air” and compete for prizes in a judged competition. The new artwork goes on sale on Saturday.

Also on Saturday, the sixth annual Chalk Walk will be staged in Georgetown. The Italian tradition of street painting dates to the 16th century when artists would travel from town to town and transform the streets and public squares into temporary galleries for their works. The chalk artists and their short-lived works are incredible and not to be missed.

Completing the opening weekend are three 30-minute performances staged in Francis Marion Park by the Squonk Opera. The performances are free.

Squonk Opera is called a musical phenomena and, according to its co-artistic director Jackie Dempsey, “almost impossible to describe.”

The show is about the element of surprise. “It’s wacky. An experience. It’s seeing a lot of elements in front of you. Waiting to see the next thing that’s coming,” Dempsey said.

The performance is titled “Pneumatica.” It’s filled with air, especially compressed air. Incorporating elements of street theater and pop-up art, “Pneumatica” is a wind-powered concert enlivened by shapes and objects that inflate, sway, sag, expand and contract. Using blowers and fans, these figures and tentacles, blossoming with sails and steam, culminate in the appearance of Lady Pneumatica, crowned with a wind turbine.

Squonk’s music incorporates the swoops and eddies of air with electronic bagpipes and a vertical accordion that provides Lady Pneumatica’s lungs. (It’s played like a piano while it rises and falls with her breath.) Nine people participate: five musicians and four technical people who tend the wind machines and inflatables.

“Pneumatica,” the most recent of the company’s 12 distinctive shows created over the past 23 years, is the brainchild of visual artist Steve O’Hearn. He comes up with the concept. Dempsey – a pianist, composer and professor – develops the musical accompaniment.

“We go where ever our artistic vision takes us,” Dempsey says.

“We always set ourselves a new creative challenge,” O’Hearn said from the Squonk studio in Pittsburgh. “It seems very current to honor wind power because of global warming. But we don’t preach. We just do funny things outdoors.”

When naming the company, Dempsey said, they settled on the word opera “because an opera company combines art forms the way we do. But opera is such a serious word that we needed a ridiculous and memorable word in front of it. Squonk seemed like a good word. Besides we no long have a singer. We’re purely instrumental.”

The madcap troupe has appeared internationally from Scotland to South Korea. They’ve enjoyed a stint on Broadway and a spot on “Americas Got Talent.” Over 200,000 people have seen Squonk around the world.

Call it a public celebration, a giant spectacle with boisterous music and surreal images.

“‘Pneumatica’ is not only abut the air it takes to make all the things blow up, but also the air we share together,” Dempsey says. “Some may call us contemporary or experimental, whatever that means. I just know that when I look out on the crowd of so many different kinds of people – from grandparents to hipsters – I see joy on their faces.”

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A.J. Croce: Genres blend, but the music stays soulful

Carrie Humphreys
For the Observer

A.J. Croce calls his work “American music,” but with his own twist.

“I sing soul music. Anything soulful I’m interested in, whether its country or pop or blues or rock and roll,” Croce said, from his new home in Nashville. He and his wife moved from their long-time residence in San Diego this summer.

The son of the late Jim Croce, A.J. performs his own original music, he said, and each of his seven albums is a different genre. The versatile artist is not sure what mix of music he will perform when he appears at the Pawleys Island Festival of Music and Art on Oct. 2. He decides at the last minute.

“Every concert performer plays at least one song by someone else, maybe I’ll do a Hank Williams or a Beatles song, or a brand new song by a pop artist. It depends on the moment,” he said.

He may play some of his father’s “stuff,” he said. “It depends on the show. A certain part of the audience appreciates that and I’m there to make them happy.”

Croce doesn’t remember his legendary father who died in a plane crash in 1973 when he was just a toddler. “I had a violent childhood after my father’s death, and due to that trauma I lost my sight when I was 4. I eventually did get it back in my left eye when I was around 10. You don’t want to drive with me.”

Croce, 44, learned to play the piano during his blindness by listening to recordings and the radio. He calls himself first and foremost “a piano player.” He also strums guitar and has a captivating and unique singing voice. He writes music and practices piano daily, always seeking new ways to express himself, he said, noting that A.J. stands for Adrian James. “Only my grandmother calls me Adrian,” he said.

His career highs include playing with some of his heroes, like Ray Charles, James Brown and B.B. King, who, he said, was the person who discovered him and put him to work at age 18. In the span of his 20-plus-year career, A.J. has headlined festivals, concerts and major listening venues worldwide. He has been seen and heard on shows including Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Austin City Limits, Good Morning America, E! and CNN, and he has shared the stage with an innumerable list of eclectic artists, ranging from the likes of Willie Nelson to Rod Stewart.

“But what is really amazing is to hear your music on Muzak while going down the grocery aisle. What a trip!” he said.

Croce’s had many great opportunities in his life and he pursued them. “I’ve had a great adventure and a great life in music,” he said.

His advice to young musicians: “The key to becoming good at anything is to have an open mind. Listen to every kind of music you can as a musician, every genre. And attempt to play it even if it is outside of your comfort zone. Push yourself and by doing that you learn something. Even if you don’t apply it in your own music, it provides a deeper well to pull from when you write, perform, play or record. An open mind is really the key.”

If you go

When: Oct. 2, 7 p.m.

Where: Reserve Golf Club

How much: $45, $35, $25 at pawleysmusic.org or 843-626-8911

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Aaron Neville: Close harmony that’s bred in the bone

Carrie Humphreys
For the Observer

As a child he sang on the street corners of New Orleans. Today, Grammy winner Aaron Neville performs all over the globe. He and his quintet headline the Pawleys Island Festival of Music and Art on Oct. 3.

Most of us recall Neville singing New Orleans style R&B with his brothers, The Neville Brothers. “They used to run me away, until they figured out I could hold a tune and then they let me join in,” he said.

And what of his brothers?

Formed in 1977, The Neville Brothers have a group history encompassing more than 35 years of performing, writing and recording together and apart. Although each of the four brothers pursue their individual projects, family brings them together and they occassionally still perform their iconic New Orleans style soul, seasoned with Cajun and Creole influences.

Neville gives his brother Art credit for encouraging his career and praises New Orleans for infusing its music into his soul. Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter and Pookie Hudson also inspired his musical journey, he says.

Away from his brothers, Neville has soared solo, singing every genre from country/western to gospel to pop. His career spans five decades.

His first hit single “Tell It Like It Is” was number one on the R&B charts for five weeks in 1967. He went on to win Grammy Awards for his triple-platinum 1989 collaboration with Linda Ronstadt “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind,” and reached the Country charts with the title track of 1993’s “The Grand Tour.” A member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, his most recent gospel project in 2010 was the album “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”

Neville’s concert will be a blend of all of his styles and likely to include some doo-wop. His latest album “My True Story” pays tribute to that hip era, featuring twelve classic doo-wop numbers, like “Tears on My Pillow,” “Work With Me Annie,” “Money Honey,” “ Under the Boardwalk”and “This Magic Moment.”

“Doo-wop started with five guys, like the Clovers – or five girls, like the Chantels or the Shirelles – singing harmony together on a bench or a stoop,” he said. “My own favorite place was the boys’ bathroom at school, because it had such great acoustics.

“Those song are all dear to my heart, and they rode with me, in my bones, through all these years,” said Neville, a father of four, who now resides in Manhattan. His home in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurrican Katrina.

Neville, 74, of African-American and Native American descent, is a devout Catholic, with a passionate devotion to St. Jude, to whom he has credited his success and survival. He wears a St. Jude medal as a left earring.

He advises young, up- and-coming musicians to follow their heart, not the money.

If you go

When: Oct. 3, 7 p.m.

Where: Reserve Golf Club

How much: $45, $30 at pawleysmusic.org or 843-626-8911

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Mike Farris: Music from the rough side of the mountain

Carrie Humphreys
For the Observer

Singer/guitarist Mike Farris, raised in Nashville, believes spiritual music was “always in him.” He describes his style as “simply soul music.”

But Farris didn’t find his soul until age 21.

“I was already a drug addict and alcoholic when I was 15. I was running cocaine over the state lines from Huntsville, Ala. In and out of jail already, just a broken boy trying to find his way,” he said. He almost died from an overdose.

“Then I woke up one day and a full song came into my head. And I’d never written a song before. You see I’d been praying to God to show me a purpose. I was a young man with no vision. And I was alone. But that day, God revealed my purpose,” he said.

Farris was convinced that God had placed music in his path and he’s been performing ever since.

“Well, I took a few years off for rehab to get clean,” he admitted by phone from Nashville, where he resides with Julie, his wife of 20 years.

In the 1990s he went on to perform as lead singer with the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies. When they broke up he toured with the blues band Double Trouble. Eventually he went solo and began to rediscover and reinterpret gospel and traditional black spiritual music by adding his own mix of vintage Southern soul.

He recorded “Salvation in Lights,” and for his efforts Farris won the prestigious 2007 Americana Music Award for Best New and Emerging Artist and a Dove Award for Best Traditional Gospel Album of the Year.

Farris has appeared at multiple festivals, including Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Merlefest, Telluride and Bonnaroo, electrifying audiences with the impact of his live performance. He was also the featured performer in 2011 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 16th annual American Masters concert. In February, his “Shine for All People” recording won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Roots Gospel Album. He names his Grammy win and a gig at the Hollwywood Bowl as career highlights.

For his Oct. 8 visit to Pawleys Island he’ll bring the Roseland Rhythm Revue: two horn players and two backup singers. His program will include a combination of his original soul and also some old songs rearranged. A favorite, he said, is “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”

He’s eager to visit the area. “You have such a rich history of music in your area. Soul and blues. That’s what I grew up on,” he said.

His fans cover the spectrum. “One day I’m at a rock fest and the next a bluegrass fest. Then one week I’m performing at the Grand Ole Opry and the next day I might be singing at a church,” he said.

He’s been described as singing notes that would make Patsy Cline and Mavis Staples cry and shout. “He’s got it and that’s all there is to it,” one critic wrote. “He just keeps on doing his thing singing songs the way he feels them. He melts hearts.”

“My music has always been first and foremost for the downtrodden, the wayward … people who’ve had to go up the rough side of the mountain,” he said. “Even when it’s upbeat and inspiring, there’s always been an element of pain, because truth be told, we’re all flawed. Not everybody knows it, but we all are.”

If you go

When: Oct. 8, 7 p.m.

Where: Reserve Golf Club

How much: $45, $35, $25 at pawleysmusic.org or 843-626-8911

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