Off To The Mine...

Cathedral ceilings? Forget it! When word gets around about the acoustics in Rosendale, you may find yourself rushing out for a new CD of Paul Horn at the Widow Jane's Mine.

It was there, Saturday night, that Summerland and Barely Lace played back-to-back sets in that stony, misty wonderland of cavernous mystery. Hooked into 4 car batteries for their modest electrification and set up in a nomad stage at the edge of a subterranean lake which stretched into the blackness behind them, one mystery seemed to be how far back into those inky and unmapped reaches the lure of the music carried.

Settling alongside others onto a plastic-layered haybale with fading images of the huge red moon which had led the way to the cave swaying oddly over to stray lines from Edgar Bowers' "The Centaur Overheard" and gathering imaginative focus for the music, we were embraced by a palpable wave of otherness. The shifting geographical and historical dimensions of Summerland's music and, later, the cynosuring harmonies of Annie Roland and Carrie Chapman of Barely Lace intensified the effect.

The experience of stepping into an entirely separate realm was breached only momentarily when a disgruntled Woodstocker on the sidelines asked for a news-of-the-day opinion on Clinton's "strict play of the CIA line on Cuba." It was a mild jolt to acknowledge the existence of an outside world even for an instant before the distracted soul mumbled away fracturing Will Rogers with "The CIA never liked a candidate they didn't own..." and the enchantment of the atmosphere immediately seduced attention back to an environment away from all of that earthly stuff.

Daniel Benjamin's captivating fiddle was weaving a flow of Middle Eastern, Magyar gypsy, Old English drinking songs and lusty, loping ballads against Jeff Kalmar's trick guitar- (he had concealed an oud somewhere inside of it, I swear!)- while the finely tuned vocal instrument of Willow (her real name) transfixed the audience. With snaking fingers and barefoot steps on a cave floor more wet than damp on this occasion, Willow spun a husky path through exotically-flavored contemporary tunes and Celtic dirges, seeming equally at home in each passing form.

The tight, clenching bridges in one of Willow's originals were strikingly theatrical and, although the group has been together but a year, the harmonies were studied and rounded. This Rosendale resident's talent for writing songs in a traditional mode packs a delicate and learned authenticity although one of them I do remember hearing in Sherwood Forest about 600 years ago. Another time, another existence, perhaps, but actually quite properly in place at the moment. Coming through above all was the mesmerizing, time-bending quality of their sound.

"I've been singing Celtic ballads since I was 4 years old because it's kind of a family thing," Willow said before describing her meeting with Kalmar while working at the New York Renaissance Festival and later booking their first gig at a Pagan gathering. "It was for Halloween, so we got together a bunch of our gory, bloody ballads and Jeff is into the Pagan/Wiccan tradition so he knows a lot of the Pagan top 40. Together, we had a pretty good thing for that gig."

Playing Irish festivals, Renaissance weddings and other such venues is a way of working toward "an original rock band with a brooding, Celtic flavor" according to the N.Y.C.-born, Vermont-raised Willow, who figures Summerland is half the way there. There's nothing half way about their current sound, though, with Benjamin's versatile fiddle capable of striking off in spirited downhome directions or lifting eerie asides to haunted melodies and Kalmar's classical tonalities able to leap raunchy intros into lively and fascinating progressions. Kalmar also displayed a sharp and ringing lead vocal on a somewhat unworthy cover tune.

Willow donned her shoes after the set but, after recently playing the Eco-stage at Woodstock '94, a glistening cave floor must have seemed a smiler for those unclad toes.

Barely Lace, living up to their name, maintained the fantasy feel with Annie Roland's fey tunes like the one she introduced as "A song for my favorite kind of bugs." (The Dragonfly Tune). The incantations which begin Roland's songs are words but words that "don't really mean anything," as she explained it. "It's sort of a made up language and all the music I write starts out like that and then some of it gets words and sometimes the words don't seem very necessary to perform the tunes as they are- as just tunes."

Radiant in ageless costume, Barely Lace mixes traditional ballads like "Cruel Sister" and palinodes like "John Barleycorn" into a set of Roland's songs but what makes the performance truly extraordinary is the addition of Carrie Chapman's inventive harmonies. There is a devastating quality to the blends and skipping exchanges they employ that's been honed and polished by an 11 year friendship. "Devastating" was the word of the gent beside me who added "there's something miraculous about the harmonies." True, and far too complex and magical to explain simply.

Even with Roland's simple guitar for musical backing and Alan Thompson sitting in on tabla for later numbers, one would hesitate to embellish the instrumental sparseness for fear of interfering with the dazzling interplay of voices. At one point on an uptempo number an obliging cave cricket or frog contributed a perfect counterpoint for the length of the song and then fell silent.

Walking around the rock expanse, catching varied echo effects from changing directions on an airy and ethereal piece about the moon served to underline a sense of voices emerging from other worlds. Then, just as it seemed things were waxing into entirely mythic places, it was purely appropriate to note that Stephen and Robin Larsen, biographers of mythmaster Joseph Campbell, were in attendance.

"A lot of our music deals with the in-between places; places between the worlds," Roland explained. "The world that we live in and other worlds and transitions between those places and transcendence." She added that the group's name came from a dream related to them by a friend.

"A priestess on the banks of the Hudson when all these mythical beasts lived on the land had the job of protecting them when they died or changed form because they were vulnerable at that point. She would escort them where they needed to go and make sure they were okay, our friend told us, and when she finished the whole dream, she said 'Oh, and her name was Barely Lace.' We'd been looking for a name and it clicked. What we sort of found it to mean was woodland things when they're on their way out- like when leaves are rotting and you just see the skeleton of them or spider webs when they're starting to come apart and they're like lace but barely lace..."

A companion analogy might recall the scientists who thought it would be a good idea to feed LSD and other chemicals to spiders and see what happens. Minus the artificial element, the incredible intricate and irregular webs spun by these critters place with the filigree of these blended voices, losing none of the beauty but adding unexpected and compelling form.

On Friday, Aug.26th, the special atmosphere of the Widow Jane Mine will host the improvisional spectacle of the Community Playback Theater and Sept. 2-5 a presentation of Mary Gallagher's Prenanjali which is designed to take the audience from point to point in the cave as the action unfolds. Call 658-9900 for tickets and discover the charms of a unique setting- one that may have you reluctant when it's over to return to the real world to mull over the baseball strike or Bosnia or this situation with

Clinton and the Cubans. Here we go again...

-Irv Yarg