"We weren't sure anyone was going to be here‚" Maggie Roche admitted before the Roches jumped into "Gung Ho‚" a marvelous treatise on performance ethic that can be found on Moonswept (429 Records‚ 2007)‚ the inimitable trio's first disc in nearly twelve years.
Maggie needn't have worried. Almost everyone I spoke to had a story about the last time they saw Maggie‚ Terre and Suzzy Roche at the Egg-or SPAC‚ or Troy Savings Bank‚ or some other Capital Region venue-and how it was one of the best concerts they'd ever seen. (For me‚ it was 1995 at the Mountain Winery in northern California‚ where their set was sandwiched between Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and a solo-acoustic Kenny Rankin. And yes‚ that night is on my Ten Best Concerts list.) So although these shows happened over a decade ago‚ there were three chances the Roches were going to play to an empty amphitheater: flat‚ slim and none.
"We've been in our deconstructionist phase‚" Suzzy cracked after "Only You Know How‚" another track from Moonswept. While they haven't recorded as a trio in some time‚ they've kept active separately and in duets‚ with projects like Little Noises (Saf'lini Music 2004)‚ a various-artists tribute to poet Marcia Pelletierre‚ and Zero Church (Red House‚ 2002)‚ a post-9/11 collection of prayers set to music. As such‚ there wasn't a speck of rust on the Roches‚ despite the update of a lyric from their 1979 Robert Fripp-produced debut album: "And now a trio we are/Born on the fourth of forever…"
Their longtime fans got treated to a brace of tunes from the early days: From the Bad Career Choices songbook‚ "Factory Girl" was as plaintive and longing as ever‚ while "Mr. Sellack" is still the prototypical ode to the waitressing job from hell "One Season" still nails the fact that some things are better left unsaid (but "goodbye" isn't always one of them); "Hammond Song" is still a stunning combination of lyric and harmony; and "Ing" shows that one gerund can make all the difference.
But as great as the old songs still are‚ the Roches' new material proves they can still float like butterflies and sting like hornets. "Jesus Shaves" could explode heads in the Bible Belt‚ even though it tells a really lovely story; "No Shoes" ("By our friend Paranoid Larry‚" Suzzy informed us) teaches that if you think you've got it the worst‚ just look around; and "A Prayer" (from the Zero Church project) is an achingly sad mediation from a firefighter who hopes the good he does now will ease the pain he feels about the horrible things he did in Vietnam.
The Music Haven is perfect for the Roches‚ whose music thrives on intimacy. The sisters played acoustic with no backup band; Maggie and Suzzy alternated on piano‚ while Terre's sparse guitar solos added texture to the overall performance. Maggie also got howls of delight from the audience when she cranked out a kazoo during a hilarious encore of the Coasters classic "Yakkity Yak."
At the end of the day‚ though‚ it's still all about the singing. The Roches' voices don't soar quite as high as before‚ but their vocal arrangements are still the most unique-and the most satisfying-in the land. The Roches aren't back‚ because they never really went away. But this night was like coming home to a house full of love and laughter and great stories. And the cool thing about that house? They're still adding on to it‚ and there are new stories to be told.
Lucy Wainwright Roche-daughter of Suzzy and Loudon Wainwright III-played the Newport Folk Festival the night before this show‚ and she showed her serious potential during a great half-hour opening set. Last year at this time she was teaching second and third grade in Manhattan; nine months ago‚ she decided to try performing full-time. Lucy has a high alto voice eminently suited for Irish folk classics like "The Parting Glass" and "Wild Mountain Thyme‚" but she also comes equipped with well-written originals like "Spring" and "The Saddest Sound." And her whip-quick sense of humor proved the fruit didn't fall far from the tree. In the words of Keith Jackson‚ "And the legend… continues!"