The radio promos for Saturday’s Alverno Presents show at Pitman Theatre suggested that you ought to have heard of Charles K. Harris, but you probably haven’t. He was a Poughkeepsie native who grew up and made his fortunes in Milwaukee, and in 1892, at the age of 25, he wrote the best-selling piece of sheet music of his era in the form of a song called “After The Ball” (no, not the song from Paul McCartney’s Back To The Egg album). You might remember the tune from Driving Miss Daisy, or possibly from a Calvin Klein jeans commercial from the nineteen-eighties, but most likely, you’ve never heard it, nor any of Harris’ songs. In 1906, Harris published a book called How To Write A Popular Song, which Christopher Porterfield appropriated for the title of this event. Again, most likely, the performers that Porterfield assembled for this show were the only ones in the room who had read this book. It might sound like the ultimate hipster vanity project. It might even have started out that way. But as usual with Alverno Presents, the collaborative spirit of the musicians twisted the concept in some completely unexpected directions.
Eschewing the usual template for Alverno’s “Uncovered” series, all ten musicians were onstage for the full performance, although Porterfield himself sat back as narrator/observer for a few tunes. The night began, unsurprisingly, with a few folk-rock renderings of Harris’ Tin Pan Alley-era pop nuggets. Phox’s Monica Martin sang a captivating lead on “I’ve A Longing In My Heart For You, Louise,” and Porterfield took the reins for a drastic rearrangement of “After The Ball” that sounded rather celebratory for a tragic tale of lost love. Things turned sharply weird when All Tiny Creatures’ Thomas Wincek created a sprawling, noisy sound collage out of “There’ll Come A Time;” Harris himself probably wouldn’t have recognized it as his own, but it was very beautiful, if a tad disturbing.
Harris has been called “the king of the tear-jerkers,” and he was famous for twist endings in his story-songs. This technique was most starkly illustrated in “While The Dance Goes On,” sung beautifully by Caitlin Canty and featuring audible gasps throughout the audience upon the revelation of a dead baby at the end of the song’s final verse. The most effective twist of the night, though, was the performance of “There Is No Flag Like The Red, White, And Blue” as sung by drummer Shane Leonard. In between verses, Martin read excerpts from a couple of horrific Harris pieces entitled “You’ll Always Find This Coon Hanging ‘Round” and “When A Coon Sits In The Presidential Chair,” turning what had been a somewhat ambiguous tribute show into a powerful condemnation. The mood was surreal, simultaneously awkward and empowering, a reminder of our country’s shameful past, how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.
Ryan Necci of Buffalo Gospel broke the spell with a rousing, irony-free country rendition of “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven,” which took the show into intermission. The second half of the program featured new, original songs that the performers had written according to Harris’ rules of popular songwriting—hardly strictly, as it turned out. The performers’ making-of stories were as entertaining as the songs themselves; we might have missed the vampiric narrative of Dave Dodowsky‘s “Old Is Old Until New Makes Old More Real Than New” entirely had he not unpacked it for us, and Canty introduced her “Still Pretty Good On A Bad Night” with a moving tribute to her own band, to Porterfield, and to the grand potential of the Alverno Presents series, whose days are unfortunately numbered.
Most confounding was Wincek’s contribution, an ostensible country/hip-hop hybrid called “Get To The Good Part” that surely delighted those in on the gag but left others scratching their heads. Porterfield’s own “Healing Machine” was a highlight, a heartfelt tune that would (will?) fit snugly into the Field Report canon. Necci’s “Any Other Night” was a triumph of pop-country simplicity despite his own reservations about it. Martin summed the night up perfectly early on in the set, though, by way of introduction to her own melodic tear-jerker, “Conditional Love”: “Thank you, Charles K. Harris, you racist, scary, pandering entrepreneur!” She, along with the entire cast, had taken something as fabricated, calculated, and frequently ugly as Harris’ catalog of songs and created something communal, genuine, and uplifting.