A high voice makes a promise over a pulsing chord, and an older baritone comes in on counterpoint.
The room is full — we’re sitting on bar stools against the far wall. The stage is lit a deep evening blue, and rain is running down the long windows. We’re in an old church — the church Arlo Guthrie sang to fame in Alice’s Restaurant. And on stage Seth Glier is at the keyboard, gently reflective in a clear tenor.
On a warm night in late summer, my friend Sandy and I have come to the Guthrie Center to hear a concert in the Troubador series. Seth Glier is a Grammy-nominated singer, musician and composer, and he has roots nearby; he was born in Shelburne Falls. And he will sing in Great Barrington again this weekend in the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence, at the Congregational Church at 251 Main St., headlining with local musicians.
When I hear him for the first time, that night at the Guthrie Center, he picks up the guitar and sets a rhythm with a foot pedal and a drum, and Joe Nerney turns from saxophone to harmonica and sings harmony on the choruses.
And Seth’s range seems to keep expanding, not only in his voice but in the style and feeling of his music — belting How long will I wait standing still or launching straight-faced into a sincere and bluesy If I Only Had a Heart.
He moves in minutes from a humorous 21st-century riff on breakups to a genuine love song looking for words in the awkward beginning of a new relationship.
And then he steps away from the instruments and sings at us point blank. He talks about the daily headlines and moves into a 1960s Buffalo Springfield tune often known by the first line of the chorus: Stop, children — what’s that sound. Everybody look what’s going round. He takes it up with a marching beat and it is suddenly clear that this is a protest song. And it is still frighteningly relevant.
Later he talks about the loss of his brother, who was non-verbal and diagnosed with autism. In high school Seth began helping Jamie to get ready in the mornings, and the wordless friendship that grew from those days has taught him, he said, more about listening and communication than anyone or anything else.
Jamie died last fall, and on cold, clear days Seth played the piano in his apartment to a blue jay out the window. Jamie’s nickname, he said, was Jaybird. Memories led into the song he was writing on those afternoons.
When nothing else can speak for you —
Love is a language we hold on to.
He turns love into a jazzed up New World I See with Louis Armstrong gravel in his voice. Joe Nerney runs effortlessly up the octaves on saxophone or stands at the mike, formal in his black tie and dark glasses, joining in wryly on It’s a Bitch (When You see Your Couch on Craigslist.)
He picks up a wooden recorder to play an eerie, trilled low harmony on Plastic Soldiers, a ballad that moves with sharp sadness from G.I. Joe toys in the attic to veterans coming home from tours overseas, and Sandy stares at me, because on a simple wind instrument he is playing two tones at once.
How does he do that?
He sings one note and plays another. I’ve heard someone do that before — just once.
And it keeps getting better. We are laughing in amazement. In the end, as the rain lets up, we head out glowing onto a back road scattered with leaves and branches. We are talking in excitement, shaken, wondering aloud how tow people can be a full band by themselves.
And I know I will remember the end of the first act, when the thunderstorm rose. The lights went out, and he sang in the dark — a cappella with percussion from a gourd strung with shells:
… shed some light
do the next right thing
or the next thing right.
Photo at the top: Seth Glier performs in Westport, Conn. Courtesy photo by Jana Fisher.