Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Live: The Great Mandala

Peter Paul & Mary (with Richie Havens): The Great Mandala


A live performance can certainly give you a greater appreciation of a musician’s instrumental prowess. Sometimes it allows you to capture a moment or a song that an artist would not put out in an official recording. There can be unlikely collaborations, as happens here. But only once can I recall a time when a concert caused me to completely reassess my view of a musical act. And I wasn’t even there! I saw it on TV, and I almost changed the channel. That was the Lifelines concert.

I must have first heard Peter Paul & Mary at a peace march in the 60s. These were chaotic affairs, and you couldn’t always hear the announcements of the musical acts from the stage. Add in the fact that I was eight years old. I remember that I began my lifelong habit of asking, “who was that?” at these events, but it’s hardly surprising that I didn’t always find out. So the first song I remember connecting to Peter Paul & Mary was Leaving on a Jet Plane. It was all over the radio, and it struck me as corny and cloyingly sweet. And that was how I thought of Peter Paul & Mary for many years. Certainly, this was not folk music.

In time, I met my wife. Her father was into the folk-pop groups, the Limelighters, the Kingston Trio, and so forth. I lumped Peter Paul & Mary in with these, and I still felt that this was not folk music. Folk music was made by one person with a guitar or a banjo. The folk-pop groups arose, (as I saw it), because some former folk musician sold out.

But, channel surfing one night in 1996, I came across the fund drive on my local PBS station. And there were Peter Paul & Mary. And Odetta. And Dave Van Ronk. And Ronnie Gilbert from the Weavers. By this time, I “knew” that the Weavers were the exception to my folk-pop group rule; it was impossible to believe that Pete Seeger could ever sell out.

The Lifelines concert was Peter Paul & Mary’s tribute to the folk musicians who inspired them, those who came up at the same time as they did, and those were inspired by them. And it placed them right in the middle of the folk music continuum in the United States. That combined with the quality of the performances made me realize that I had been wrong about Peter Paul & Mary all those years. I just have one request: don’t ask me to like Leaving on a Jet Plane.

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