Front Porch

O Berkley Where Hart Thou? A Joyous Celebration of American Roots Music

Jeff Berkley, Calman Hart, and the cast of O Berkley Where Hart Thou? Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Dakota Berkley and Miranda Hart join their fathers in a song. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Brown Sugar and Lisa Sanders. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Shawn Rohlf, Jef Kmak, and Robin Henkel. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Beauty and truth are timeless; they never go out of style. Great art seems to break the bounds placed on lesser creations. Tidy classifications of genre and style fade in the bright light cast by masterpieces. Out of the unique American musical vernacular came the tap roots of blues, jazz, gospel, folk, country, and rock. O Berkley, Where Hart Thou? celebrates those roots. Who knew that eternal transcendence could pour forth from a five-string banjo, a flat-picked guitar, a low-slung fiddle, and a slapping upright bass?

San Diego folk icons Jeff Berkley and Calman Hart are again gathering together their talented friends on the Poway Center for the Performing Arts stage to perform O Berkley, Where Hart Thou? Riffing on the Coen brother’s film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? the all-star line-up includes Shawn Rohlf and the 7th Day Buskers, Dennis Caplinger, Robin Henkel, Gregory Page, Steve Poltz, Lisa Sanders, Jeffrey Joe Morin, Robin Adler, Cathryn Beeks and Matt Silvia, the Lovebirds, Tom Brossseau, and the Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church Youth Choir to render songs from the film’s best-selling soundtrack as well as other songs of the period.

O Berkley, Where Hart Thou? has been an amazing way for us to showcase the treasure chest of talent that’s always on display in San Diego for folks who may or may not be aware of it,” says Jeff Berkley. “Audiences always come away energized for having discovered this gem of a show! That’s what’s fun for me is getting to help show off my friends and colleagues!” Folk music is, after all, alive and well here in San Diego. And whether you call it folk, bluegrass, Americana, or roots, one thing is clear. It’s damn good stuff.

“September is the time when Poway celebrates its history with parades, the rodeo, street fairs and more. We thought “what better way to join in the celebration of the City in the Country than San Diego folk, country, and bluegrass musicians recreating the Academy Award-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?” states Michael Rennie, POW! Foundation Executive Director.

On Saturday, September 22 at 8pm the Poway Center for the Performing Arts will be transformed into an Appalachian back porch. Also on hand will be the just released DVD/CDs of the original O Berkley, Where Hart Thou?, recorded before a packed house at the inaugural show.

In the late 1990s, Ethan and Joel Coen began conceiving a film project around an unusual idea. They wanted to film a new version of Homer’s Odyssey, set in the American South of the 1930s. An unusual melding of two classic eras — ancient Greece and the Depression-era South — called for an unusual approach. Typically, music is added to a film at the end of the process. But before the Coen brothers wrote or shot one scene, they hired T-Bone Burnett to record the soundtrack. Using field recordings and a core group of musicians to create new material, Burnett created a powerfully moving musical experience.

With Burnett’s soundtrack playing in their headphones, the Coen brothers set out to write and shoot the film. The soundtrack became a surprise best seller with the single “Man of Constant Sorrow,” even garnering extensive radio play on top-40 country stations, including local station KSON. Some even credit the success of the soundtrack with paving the way for a resurgence in alt-country and Americana artists like Allison Krauss and Union Station, Gillian Welch, and a host of others. But one thing is sure. The success of this music proves that there is a hunger out there for heart-felt, simple, true American music, something that Nashville stopped providing decades ago.

Serving as “house band” for the evening, Shawn Rohlf and the 7th Day Buskers bring the authentic roots feel and masterful chops that the material so dearly requires. According to Rohlf, this music matters because “it seems to go deeper than my ears. I can feel it in my bones. I hear my ancestor’s pain and struggles as they crossed an ocean and braved the elements to find a new life. I feel the excitement and joy of dancing on the front porch to the banjo and fiddle after working from dawn till dusk. There was no Hollywood glamour, no MTV, no CD sales or Grammy awards to complicate, sterilize, and exploit this music. It was simply played to entertain, comfort, and pass along some history to the next generation. We are so far removed from that today.”

For Berkley Hart, the real strength of the show is the camaraderie the musicians share. Gathering around one or two microphones, just like they used to do in the 1930s, keeping it lo-tech and hi-warmth, makes the magic happen. “Getting everyone together is the real prize for me,” says Berkley. “It’s a party and a half. The audience feels it, we feel it, and it goes with us when we leave.”

Everyone involved feels the same way about the music and its timeless relevance. And that’s what sets this show apart from the flurry of other tribute shows that have come along in recent years. For these artists, this music has been the heart and soul of the inspiration for their own songwriting. “It’s meant everything to me to go to school on this music,” says Berkley. “It’s infused in everything I do.” Listen to any of the original recordings of Berkley Hart, Eve Selis, the 7th Day Buskers, Tom Brosseau, Robin Henkel, Lisa Sanders, Gregory Page, and the rest of them, and you’ll hear the ghosts of American music brought to life. This show is so much more than just a cover band party. There is an almost religious reverence to this show. Maybe it’s the innate spirituality of the material itself and the way it illuminates the darkest corners of the soul with the possibility of redemption and salvation.

What strikes you first when you listen to this music is its naked intimacy, honesty, and fearlessness. Willing to grab the devil by the horns, these songs spread a healing balm over the existential wounds of loneliness, poverty, death, and despair. Hear Ralph Stanley’s “O Death” and feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Feel the cold darkness slide through your veins when you hear “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest),” a mournful lament sung by a dying child to her grieving mother. Feel the relief of the belly laughs as you hear the classic hobo fantasy “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” with its cigarette trees, lakes of stew, and chickens that lay soft boiled eggs. Weaving sorrow and joy together in a life-like tapestry that wraps around an audience like a warm embrace, music like this, performed by artists like this, make you remember why you fell in love with music in the first place.

Performed “Grand Ol’ Opry style” – with vocalists and acoustic instruments circled around a shared microphone – O Berkley captures the pure, organic beauty of these timeless classics with minimal embellishments. In 2005, the duo staged the first O Berkley, Where Hart Thou? The DVD/CD of that first show was nominated for Best Americana or Country Album at the 2007 San Diego Music Awards (SDMA). Berkley Hart have since presented three additional shows, featuring different performers. Following sold out performances at a 400-seat Encinitas Church in 2006 and again in 2009, the show was ready to move to a larger venue. Now this grand-daddy of all theme shows has found a new home at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts.

If you had the misfortune of missing the previous productions of O Berkley, Where Hart Thou?, here’s your chance for redemption. For tickets and further information, visit www.berkleyhart.com, www.powayarts.com

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