Tribute to a Rock N’ Roll Icon

August may be the dog days of summer, but it also has every year now for the past seven years been the occasion to look forward to one of the top musical events of the year.

That would be when the Music Center at Strathmore, with Bandhouse Gigs, hosts its annual tribute concert honoring iconic figures, events and themes from rock and pop music history featuring the very best of an array of local musicians, singers and performers.

Originated in 2004 by Bandhouse Gigs—a not-for-profit volunteer group founded by Ronnie Newmyer, Chuck Sulllivan, David Sless and Danny Schwartz—the concert began as an outdoor venue at Strathmore but soon moved indoors into the concert hall. The first tribute concert honored legendary solo and group (E Street Band) rocker Neal Lofgren. Others followed: Neil Young, an almost archetype California rocker and the “Heart of Gold,” member of Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, the band considered by some the best rock band ever; Bob Dylan; folk-and-jazz queen and pure singer Joni Mitchell; Woodstock as the music and watershed 1960s event; and The British invasion.

This year’s Bandhouse Gig is the Tribute to Simon and Garnfunkel and Paul Simon on August 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore’s Concert Hall.

“How could you not?” Ronnie Newmyer said in an interview. “Simon, with Garfunkel, and as a solo performer and composer, has probably had more hits than anybody alive and has influenced more musicians than you can count. Think about it, they had their first hit in high school.”

As a duo, beginning in 1965, Simon (Paul) and Garfunkle (Art), the short one and the afro-blonde one, came up with songs that defined a generation of young people from the early 1960s on, kids that weren’t necessarily born rock and rollers, kids as sensitive, slightly alienated outsiders who could appreciate a song that begins with “Hello, darkness my old friend” (“The Sound of Silence”). The guys weren’t jocks but were fans, they weren’t popular but they were cool and smart and they carried certain angst around with them with a sweet flair. Some of them wore leather jackets instead of letter jackets.

“That was the first stage, all those wonderful songs and harmonies, “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Mrs. Robinson.” “They were poems, quiet anthems,” Newmyer said. “And they were hugely popular.”

“What we were trying to do here is not just make it Simon and Garfunkel, but also Paul Simon, who’s still going strong,” Newmyer said. “I’d say the program is split half and half between S&G and Simon solo. And let me tell you it was tough picking the songs, hard to make the cuts and then to match them with performers.”

So for S&G purists and Simon fans, be prepared to have your feelings hurt. There are some notable absences, including “My Little Town,” the touchstone song Simon and Garfunkel recorded after they broke up, “I am a Rock….I am an Island,” and “Slip Sliding Away.”

“That was hard,” Newmyer, who has his own band called “Soul Cracker,” said. “But hell, you could make a tribute concert out of the “Bridge over Troubled Water” album alone, that’s how good they were and are.”
It would be a mistake to think of these concerts as if they were one of those public television or Time Life golden oldies occasions, although no questions, old songs return like transformed angels.

The most revolutionary and exciting aspect of these concert is the mash of a very familiar song-list—for the most part—with performances drawn from a rich array of Washington performers, some nationally known, others young and new and gifted, some of them graduates of Strathmore’s artist in residence programs, like the youthful rock/pop dynamo Margot MacDonald, who will be on hand again this year.

“That’s the really rich part of this, because the performances transform the songs, make them seem fresh and contemporary,” Newmyer said. “Plus, I think it’s a true showcase of Washington area performers who play everywhere in local venues like the Birchmere or the 9:30 Club. This isn’t a sing along, it’s about as an exciting a concert as you can imagine.”

“We’ve got Julia Nixon, who is such a gifted singer and who’ll be doing ‘Bridge over Troubled Water,’” he said. “There’s this new, young singer, Victoria Vox, who’ll sing ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’”

“We’ll have a lot of younger performers this year, which should be interesting,” he added.
Other performers on tap include Deanna Bogart, Eric Brace, Chopteeth, Lea, Deep River, Ellen Cherry, The Sweater Set, Cal Everett, Deeme Katson, Ed O’Connell, David Kitchen, Ted Garber, Esther Haynes, Ronnie Newmyer and Owen Danoff, among others.

Just goes to show you, all pop/rock music history is a circle. Danoff is the son of Bill Danoff, one of the founders of Starland Vocal Band, which produced the 1980s hit “Afternoon Delight.” Danoff and co-Starland member Jon Carroll, a regular tribute participant, performed at the Joni Mitchell tribute two years ago.

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