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. San Diego folk icons Jeff Berkley and Calman Hart are again gathering together their talented friends to celebrate those roots, this time at the Music Box in downtown San Diego. Riffing on the Coen brother’s film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the all-star line-up includes the 7th Day Buskers (Shawn Rohlf, Robin Henkel, Melissa Dow, Doug Walker, Peter Sharp), along with special guests Tim Flannery, Gregory Page, Black Market Three, Astra Kelly, Cathryn Beeks, Justin Rodriguez, Grampadrew and Story & Tune, to render songs from the film’s best-selling soundtrack as well as other songs of the period.
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. 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, capturing the pure, organic beauty of these timeless classics with minimal embellishments.
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.
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). Since then Berkley Hart have presented the show five more times, featuring different performers. If you had the misfortune of missing the previous productions of “O Berkley, Where Hart Thou?”, here’s your chance for redemption.