Voice Works, a celebration of singing, opens the season of music festivals in and around Fort Worden State Park this week — and the event is bigger than ever. With four public shows — including the Free Fridays at the Fort concert with Abby Mae & the Homeschool Boys — Voice Works brings together singers from across genres and generations.
And they’re coming from everywhere to this party put on by the Centrum foundation: Tim O’Brien and his sister Mollie are coming from Colorado; Aoife O’Donovan, from Brooklyn, N.Y.; Pharis and Jason Romero are coming from Horsefly, B.C.; Courtney Granger heads here from Louisiana.
One thing these artists have in common, right off, is their desire to get together and sing songs that are new, old, original and traditional. They’ll do just that in Voice Works’ workshops, and then finish off the experience with a set of concerts, all at Fort Worden at 200 Battery Way starting Thursday. On Thursday night, it’s the brand-new “Two by Two: An Intimate Evening of Duet Singing,” with the Romeros and Patrice Haan and Tony Marcus, the American songbook duo known as Leftover Dreams. The 7:30 p.m. show in the Wheeler Theater is a first for Voice Works, said John MacElwee, executive director of Centrum.
Abby Mae & the Homeschool Boys, a Port Angeles folk and gospel group, give a free hourlong concert on the fort’s Nora Porter Commons at noon Friday. On Friday night, the Honky Tonk Dance overtakes the fort’s USO Hall, bringing in Cajun-country singer and fiddler Granger, plus Caleb Klauder of Portland’s Foghorn Stringband and Commander Cody lead guitarist Bill Kirchen.
First, though, Voice Works workshops are attracting an unprecedented crowd of workshop participants of all levels, MacElwee noted: 175 and counting. Last year, the week had 99 students. “I’m looking forward to digging into some songs, and to those unusual collaborations. There are going to be some performances and dances that are one of a kind,” said Tim O’Brien, reached last weekend at Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He’ll join O’Donovan as well as his sister and her husband, Rich Moore, plus classic-country duo Linda and David Lay, for the “Country Roots and Bluegrass” finale Saturday night. The event will start at 7:30 p.m. in McCurdy Pavilion.
O’Brien has been playing music for 46 years; he sings and plays guitar, mandolin and various other stringed instruments at festivals from coast to coast. This was, in fact, his 37th year at Telluride. When asked how he slides inside the emotion of a song — night after night, show after show — O’Brien, 58, responded that it’s not just about him. If he’s doing his work right, something bigger is happening. These festivals, he said, are about bringing a variety of people together, both on the stage and in the crowd. "The song will lead you in,” and then the music has a way of working its own magic. To get straight to this point, O’Brien quoted “One Love,” Bob Marley’s anthem: “Let’s get together,” the reggae icon sang, “and feel all right.”
“Oh, he is my hero,” O’Donovan said when a reporter told her of O’Brien’s sentiment. She, too, believes in singing as a communal act that provides sweet relief to any kind of people. She grew up singing — in her hometown of Newton, Mass., and in Ireland, where she spent summers. The Irish have something called a “sing song,” just a get-together that can be found somewhere every night of the week. “We live in a crazy world,” O’Donovan observed — but music is always there for the singing. A lot of us have been silenced by somebody who didn’t appreciate our voices, she acknowledged. As a teacher who travels from conference to festival teaching people at all levels, O’Donovan believes everyone can sing. It’s a matter of teaching a simple song, a simple harmony, then inviting the singers to close their eyes and do it.
O’Donovan is finding a new voice of her own. After 10 years with the alternative bluegrass band Crooked Still, she’s been touring with the Punch Brothers from Nashville, Tenn. — and singing her own original songs. “It’s a new challenge, putting out my own thoughts, instead of channeling [others’],” said O’Donovan, who turns 30 this year. A big fan of Tim and Mollie O’Brien, O’Donovan added that Klauder is one of her top-favorite singers. “I’ve been looking forward [to Voice Works] for months,” she said.
“What a lineup.”