A grand day out at the Steel City Opry

It’s been a while since I updated True North Music as the ups and downs of “real life” intervened, but I’m happy to be getting out there again recently enjoying live music – both as listener and participant! This past weekend I was lucky enough to be at a workshop and concert organised by the fine folks at Steel City Opry. This is the great name that my friends Issy, Bob, Rose and Rob have given to their promotion of live music events in Sheffield. It’s a labour of love for them, and like me they enjoy spreading the word about old-time country, bluegrass and Americana. 

Sunday’s event featured an afternoon singing workshop and evening concert by US duo Alice Gerrard and Beverly Smith. Alice is an almost legendary figure in the world of folk music, particularly known for her work with Hazel Dickens and for being formerly married to Mike Seeger. Multi-instrumentalist Beverly has also worked with numerous old-time greats including Bruce Molsky and Carl Jones. They are both talented singers and harmony singing forms a significant part of their work together.

The afternoon singing workshop (sold out and with around 30 people in attendance) saw Alice and Beverly running through a number of songs and then teaching the group the basics of harmony singing as well as general tips on style and ornamentation. It was a real treat to hear the two voices trading lead and harmony roles and the class was then led through a variety of songs, including the bluesy gospel song Where Will I Shelter My Sheep Tonight and Alice’s original composition Lonely Night. Three and a half hours flew by – including a break for tea, coffee and fabulous home-made cake – and the venue (the Millennium Hall on Ecclesall Road) provided a fantastic space for the singing. Here’s a very short sample of the class singing in two-part harmony:

Following the workshop many of us moved on to the Harland Café, venue for the evening concert. This is a welcoming and funky eaterie which normally closes at 4pm but stayed open throughout the evening for this special event. We ordered some extremely tasty grub, refuelling before the informal music session which preceded Alice and Beverly’s performance at 7:30pm. After a really fun hour or two of songs and tunes, the Harland had filled up with the rest of the night’s concert goers. The Steel City Opry folks then brought proceedings to order and Issy, Bob and Rose performed a short opening set in their band alter ego of On the Back Porch, showcasing some lovely harmony singing of their own.

Alice Gerrard and Beverly Smith then delivered a really entertaining and engaging performance, with Alice frequently swapping from guitar to clawhammer banjo and Beverly moving between guitar, mandolin and fiddle. They included some stomping fiddle tunes but their harmony singing was the star of the show here. The night featured songs both original and traditional as well as classic covers, including I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again, The Cuckoo,   Jealous and Remember Me, with the mood ranging from mournful and bluesy to up-tempo and sassy. The appreciative crowd made for a great atmosphere and there was even a bit of authentic Appalachian clogging courtesy of an audience member! The low lighting in the venue meant that my few video clips didn’t come out that well, but this one gives a flavour of the atmosphere (yes, it’s that song again!): 

The night was finished off with floor spots from some of the talented singers and musicians in attendance, with a final short free-for-all session playing us on our way. The whole day was a wonderful, life-affirming event and a testimony to the power of live music and the pleasure of singing and playing with others. I can’t wait for the next Steel City Opry event!